There were complications that led to delays. The whole thing almost fell apart at the last minute.
In the end, though, the various parties decided they had too much at stake, and they made it work. I’m very glad they did. The U.S. government made freeing me, my wife and two other American hostages — Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini — a condition for allowing the deal to go ahead, thus enabling us to gain our freedom.
Late in the afternoon on Jan. 17, 2016, we were finally allowed to leave Iran. I had been held in Evin Prison for 544 days.
We call it my Free-versary. It’s become my favorite celebration, much more important than a birthday or New Year’s Day could ever be. It’s both of those — and a renewal of vows — rolled into one.
For the past three years, marking this day has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.
All of that is in the past now, though. I still have something to celebrate — but it’s bittersweet. The news today that 11 Americans were actually injured in the Iranian missile attacks on bases on Iraq on Jan. 8 certainly isn’t making me feel any better.
When President Trump pulled out of the JCPOA in May 2018, he set off — knowingly or not — a chain of events culminating in this moment.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve experienced a frightening escalation. Pro-Iranian militias stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Following the targeted killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top military commander, and Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian commercial airliner, killing all 176 people on board, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a Friday prayer sermon in Tehran for the first time since 2012.
That’s a very good indication of just how tense relations between the United States and Iran are right now.
The prospect of a different relationship with Iran, which many thought could lead to a more open society and greater prosperity for the Iranian people, is now just a vague and distant memory of feeling hopeful.
In its place is a lingering sense of dread over what terrible fate might befall them next.
These issues are anything but academic to me. I’m a journalist, and Iran is my beat. I’ve invested a good part of my life trying to understand it. I am deeply attached to its people and culture.
And then there’s the odd reality that my own fate has become inextricably entangled with the tortured story of U.S.-Iranian relations. It’s a fact that I wouldn’t be writing this today if it hadn’t been for the JCPOA.
But it’s no secret that I also believe there are sound political and strategic reasons for maintaining the deal.
That has made me a lightning rod for supporters of the Trump administration’s hard-line policies — including many in the Iranian diaspora, from some monarchists to members of the Mujahideen-e Khalq insurgent group (MEK).
That’s been clearer than ever since Free-versary 2019.
Last year, I testified in a lawsuit that my family and I brought against the Islamic Republic for the abuse inflicted on me and my family during my captivity. Our prime motivation was to set a legal precedent that would deter such behavior by the regime in the future. Ultimately, we won the case.
The judgment unleashed a fresh torrent of anger. This time I was slandered by Iranian officials as well as anti-regime activists in the diaspora who claim I’m in cahoots with my former captors. (The latter say I’m planning to use funds I might receive from my judgement to fund the Islamic Republic’s Washington lobby. I didn’t even know there was one.)
The attacks have steadily ramped up in intensity. Last summer — to name but one example — the Islamic Republic released a 30-part state-produced television drama called “Gando” supposedly based on its “case” against me. The show attests to the weird intensity of the Iranian government’s continuing obsession with me and my work.
The MEK, meanwhile, created a fictional persona to publish articles and accuse me and others on social media of “collaborating” with Tehran. Most disconcerting of all was finding myself the target of a State Department-financed public diplomacy initiative that ran a Twitter account that slandered me and other Iranian American journalists for insufficient hawkishness.
As a columnist, if you take attacks from all sides, it’s a good indication that you’re doing something right. In my case, though, it has become a little extreme.
My editors periodically receive official complaints about my articles from representatives of the Islamic Republic at the United Nations as well as from a spokesman of the MEK.
The ways in which different players have focused on me, especially over the last year, illustrate just how emotional — and misrepresented— an issue Iran is.
Periodically — as I did when I was in prison and the target of Iran’s statewide propaganda campaign — I have to remind myself that this craziness isn’t really about me. It’s a reflection of the raw emotions that now dominate the U.S.-Iran relationship. My only hope is that our two countries will find a way back onto the path of reason and figure out a way to avoid blowing each other up.