WASHINGTON: A pawn in a game of international chess, Jason Rezaian, the Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post, spent 544 days in an Iranian prison.
As Rezaian languished behind bars in Evin Prison, the high-stakes match was being played over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
“I was treated as an Iranian but when it came time to make a trade, I was traded as an American,” Rezaian, the son of an Iranian-born father and an American mother, told AFP in an interview. “It is a hypocritical way, but a very Iranian way of doing business.”
Rezaian, 42, who was born and raised in California, recounts his 18-month ordeal in a memoir, “Prisoner,” which came out at the end of January.
Rezaian and his wife, Yeganah, were arrested on July 22, 2014 after he returned from Vienna, where he had covered a negotiating session between Iran and the P5+1 — the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
After years of economic sanctions, the talks had officially resumed following the June 2013 election of moderate Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency.
The two sides were working toward an agreement governing Iran’s nuclear program, which Tehran insisted was for civilian purposes but Western intelligence agencies suspected had military goals.
Rezaian, who had worked for the Post for two years and was well acquainted with the restrictions on foreign reporters in Iran, was accused by the Iranian authorities of being the station chief for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Tehran.
His Iranian interrogators were particularly suspicious about a quixotic Kickstarter campaign he launched to bring avocados — a fruit that is not found in Iran — to the Islamic Republic.
“To take a Kickstarter project on an avocado farm, such a silly thing, and turn this into proof that you are the CIA station chief in Tehran is ridiculous,” Rezaian said.
He soon came to realize that his “value” and that of his Iranian-born wife was linked to the delicate negotiations over the future of Iran’s nuclear program.
“Very early on, they would say ‘just a journalist has no value for us’ — they kept talking about value, value,” Rezaian said.
“Iran has been famous for taking hostages, and using those hostages for trade for many years,” he added in a reference to the 1979 seizure of American diplomats in Tehran, a move which led to the rupture in relations between the two countries.
Caught in the middle of a power struggle
Rezaian and his wife also found themselves caught up in the middle of a power struggle among the leadership of the Islamic Republic over the nuclear deal and the country’s relations with the West.
“The (faction) that didn’t want relationships (with the West) was responsible for my arrest and they were doing everything they could to undermine the negotiations between the Rouhani administration and (P5+1),” he said.
“It was a very complex situation as — at the same time — Rouhani’s folks that were negotiating understood that they could use me as leverage as well,” the journalist said.
During his 18 months in Evin Prison, in northern Tehran, Rezaian was interrogated, threatened with dismemberment and told he could receive life in prison or even the death sentence.
He was told he would be freed if he pleaded guilty to espionage. Put on trial behind closed doors in 2015, Rezaian pleaded not guilty.
Rezaian said his prison conditions improved somewhat as the months dragged on. His wife was released after 72 days and he was allowed visits by his mother.
The Washington Post, his brother, Ali, and press freedom groups launched a campaign seeking his release.
“I realized that it needed to be as loud as possible because at that point it became a political issue and it was my only chance,” Rezaian said. “For innocent people who are captured and used as leverage, it’s imperative to keep their name out there.”
Rezaian was released along with three other Americans on January 16, 2016 — the day the nuclear agreement signed in Vienna on July 14, 2015 went into force.
“My fate was tied up with how the deal was going to be implemented,” he said.
Rezaian said his first months back home were difficult.
“We will never return to the life we had and it took me many months to understand it,” he said. “In the first months I thought I was like, broken.
“I could not sleep at night,” he said, and was “very paranoid.”
Since his release, Rezaian has campaigned for the release of other foreigners or dual nationals held by Iran such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian who has been detained since April 2016, and Iranian-Americans Baquer and Siamak Namazi.
Rezaian’s advice to other members of the press working in Iran is to be “very careful.”
“Take all the necessary precautions,” he said. “Because unfortunately, the likelihood is that it will happen again to somebody else.”