American journalist’s ‘crime’ was writing about everyday life in Iran

Accused of spying and threatened with execution for doing his job as a journalist, Washington Post foreign correspondent Jason Rezaian still suffers nightmares from his 18-month ordeal in Iran’s Evin Prison.

As he reports in his new memoir, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, Rezaian, 42, and his Iranian wife and fellow journalist, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested at gunpoint and thrown into solitary confinement in July 2014.

Salehi was released after 72 days. As Rezaian describes, he was convicted in a sham trial that quickly turned into an Orwellian nightmare, with interrogators from Iran’s intelligence service concocting conspiracy theories and threatening execution or dismemberment.

“It got more and more absurd. I was the cause of every problem the Islamic Republic had,” he says.

The California-born Rezaian, who also held Iranian citizenship through his immigrant father, was released in a prisoner swap in January 2016.

It pains him that other Americans continue to languish in Iranian prisons on spurious charges. One is an American graduate student, Xiyue Wang, from Princeton University, who was conducting historical research when arrested and sentenced to 10 years for spying. Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, went missing after a trip to Iran almost 12 years ago. A lawful permanent resident of the U.S., Nizar Zakka, was arrested in 2015 after being invited by the Rouhani government to speak at a conference on women and sustainable development.

“Each new farcical arrest is a reminder that taking hostages — 52 of them, in fact — was the signature move of this regime when it first started 40 years ago,” Rezaian writes.

He is referring to the 52 American diplomats held for 444 days after radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in November 1979.

As Rezaian describes in great detail, his captors repeatedly lied and tried to trick him, but they also betrayed a love of American culture. His principal interrogator wanted actor Will Smith to play him in the Hollywood movie made from the book Rezaian would inevitably write — if he got out of Evin.

Rezaian’s late father, Taghi Rezaian, came to the United States from Iran in 1959 to attend college. He met his future wife, Mary Breme, and became a Persian rug dealer. Jason’s mother, wife, and brother Ali and the Washington Post‘s editor and publisher waged a relentless #FreeJason campaign.

Just as his captors were fascinated by American culture, so was Rezaian captivated by his father’s homeland. This is what motivated him to move to Iran in 2009 to freelance and then become the Post‘s Tehran bureau chief in 2012. He covered not only politics but people’s everyday lives.

To his jailers’ demands that he “confess” in exchange for freedom, he replied repeatedly, “I’m not an agent of anyone except the Washington Post.”

The irony, Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius later told Rezaian, is that “you tried to make Iran a real place. … You were trying to celebrate its culture.”

And for now it’s a place to which neither Rezaian nor his wife can return.