Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were headed to a family get-together. It was July 22, 2014, and as they entered the parking garage beneath their Tehran apartment building, they were set upon by armed men. One pointed a revolver at Rezaian. These were government agents, and they were treating the couple—Rezaian was the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Salehi a journalist who worked for several outlets—like hardened outlaws.
“They forced their way back up into our apartment, ransacked the place, and hauled us off to prison,” Rezaian recalled in a recent interview. “It was really unclear what the circumstances—the charges—were. But it was very much an ambush.”
Rezaian has done some fine work for the Post, but if you know his name, it’s probably because of what he and his family endured in the year-and-a-half after he was locked up. In Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, A Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out, Rezaian paints a vivid portrait of the hellscape into which he was hurled by a cruel, clumsy state security apparatus.
His story involves cybercrimes, high-stakes geopolitical negotiations, and avocados. Rezaian, a personable 42-year-old, has a nice way of summing it up. The whole thing was “fucking crazy,” he told me.
Rezaian started working as a freelance journalist in Iran in 2009. He joined the Post in 2012. Born and raised in California, the self-described “half-Iranian American” wanted to tell “stories that were counterintuitive to the prevailing narrative of Iran told from western capitals.” He wrote features and hard news. He and Salehi, who were married in 2013, appeared on an episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. “We had a really established life,” he said, “both as journalists working for international media. We were really at the top of our game, or so we thought.”
Their ordeal began without notice. After searching the couple’s home, agents handcuffed and blindfolded Rezaian and Salehi, took them to separate holding cells and began questioning them. Rezaian was a spy, he was told, and his “marriage was a product of a CIA and MI6 arrangement that neither of us was aware of.”
It was all nonsense, of course, but where was this stuff coming from? As Rezaian recalls in Prisoner, his email account was hacked shortly before he was imprisoned, and when Iranian security operatives looked at its contents, they drew bizarre conclusions. For instance, in 2010 Rezaian started a Kickstarter campaign aimed at introducing the avocado to Iran, where it was largely unknown. To his captors, this was evidence of treachery. In his book, he quotes one of his interrogators: “You must tell me about the avocado. This is code, we know that, but for what?”
Though this is the kind of thing that’s funny in retrospect, in the moment, it can’t have been all that amusing. At first, Rezaian thought it was just a misunderstanding. But one day turned into another. He was threatened with execution and forced to spend endless hours alone. Rezaian was in solitary confinement for 49 days, Salehi for 72. She was freed in October 2014, but Rezaian remained in prison. In time, he got a cellmate and a TV. He watched a lot of martial arts movies, and exercised all the time. Rezaian invented something called “hundreds”—laps of the concrete courtyard adjoining his cell—and sometimes he would pace for six hours a day.
Rezaian’s jailers told him the world had forgotten him, but months into his captivity, he saw an Iranian-produced English language newspaper. It contained an update on his case. In time, he learned that people ranging from Muhammad Ali to Secretary of State John Kerry—the latter was negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal—were calling for Rezaian’s release. Rezaian’s brother Ali and his mother Mary were working hard to keep his story in the press. “You want to believe that everybody in the world cares,” Rezaian said, but there were moments of deep despair. Still, when his captors promised to release him if he just lied and pleaded guilty to espionage, he refused to give in.
Humor helped him. One time, pressured to sing for his guards, he performed a tune they seemed to like. What was that song? they asked. The American national anthem, he replied. “I realized after not too long that if I change my approach to how I live and how I conceive of the world, if I stop laughing at things, that would be the ultimate defeat for me—a wound. So I honestly never let that happen.” When his mother and wife were allowed to visit, he joked about his plight. “My wife would say, ‘That’s not funny. You’re taking this too lightly. They’re talking about executing you,’ And my response would be, ‘Exactly, they’re talking about executing me? This is fucking crazy!’”
Eventually, Rezaian was formally charged with spying and, he writes, “‘spreading propaganda against the regime,’ but it was plain to everyone that what I was actually being accused of was gathering public information and sharing it with the world through the Washington Post.” His bogus trial was closed to the public, but when “it became obvious that the verdict in my case was being held back,” Rezaian didn’t know what to think. Behind the scenes, U.S. and Iranian officials were talking. On January 17, 2016, Rezaian was freed (three other Americans were also released from Iranian custody). Around the same time, several Iranians held in American prisons were freed, and the U.S. sent $1.7 billion to Tehran to settle a long standoff over a weapons contract.
Rezaian is circumspect when asked what role the much-hyped nuclear negotiations might’ve played in his capture. “There are a lot of conflicting views about how the nuclear negotiations evolved and resolved, how we were released,” he said. “But I don’t look at it as successful for Iran. They’ve been taking hostages for 40 years, starting with the diplomats in the U.S. embassy in Tehran. They’ve never really stopped. And while they have gotten concessions out of those situations and have continued to do it repeatedly, almost without stopping all these years, I think it’s done more than anything else to sully Iran’s image in the world.”
He believes his imprisonment might’ve been a byproduct of a domestic rivalry in Iran. Some influential leaders wanted the nuclear agreement, others didn’t. To this latter group, Rezaian was a useful bargaining tool—by taking him hostage, they undercut those who sought détente with America. “I think ultimately the idea was: Let’s just make this process as difficult for our domestic adversaries, who are trying to get this deal done, as possible.”
Today, Rezaian is back in Washington, where he’s an opinion writer for the Post and a CNN contributor. He’s filed a federal lawsuit against Iran, which he declined to discuss. But at a time when other Americans, as well as citizens of other countries, are still being held in Iran, he intends to keep the issue in the public eye. When he was in Iran and the government imprisoned a foreigner, he recalled, he’d hear from people who sided with the state. “There must be something there,” they said, or else the authorities wouldn’t have locked this person up.
“I’m sure that millions of Iranians said the exact same thing about me,” Rezaian said. “And now that I’m out and the trend of taking foreign nationals continues—and the propaganda campaigns are more elaborate than they were even against me—I take it as a responsibility to dispel those myths and be a voice for those people who’ve had their voices stripped from them. They messed with the wrong guy.”