James Mann is the author of several books on American foreign policy, including “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.”
One day while Jason Rezaian was languishing in prison in Tehran, his jailers told him, “You must sing for us.” He finally agreed to do so, but only if they stood up. They did. Rezaian crooned with deep emotion and passion, and the guards burst into applause. Rezaian then told them he had been singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” — so that, by clapping, they had “paid the ultimate respect to the Great Satan.”
That anecdote provides a fitting introduction to the many little dramas and absurdities experienced by Rezaian, then The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran, during nearly a year and a half in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. “Prisoner,” Rezaian’s account of his time behind bars and his release, is full of stories like the one about his rendition of the national anthem — some of them funny, some of them outrageous.
Rezaian grew up in California, a son of an Iranian rug merchant. He eventually established himself as one of the very few American newspaper correspondents in Iran. He and his wife, Yeganeh, were arrested at their Tehran apartment in the summer of 2014 just as they were about to leave on a trip to the United States. At the time, the Iranian regime was negotiating a deal with the Obama administration in which the United States would lift sanctions in exchange for Iran’s agreement to limit its nuclear weapons program.
Rezaian eventually concluded that he was a hostage, seized so that Iran could try to extract leverage in those negotiations. He sardonically brands the government that jailed him “the Hostage Taking Republic of Iran.” He observes that the “signature move” of the current Iranian regime after it came to power in 1979 was the seizure of more than 50 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Rezaian wound up spending 544 days in captivity — precisely 100 more than those earlier hostages. Sometimes, he theorizes, Iranian officials take hostages without even knowing at first what they will seek in return.
The specific charges against Rezaian became as absurd as everything else about his case. First, Iranian authorities accused him of espionage, seeking to claim that he was a CIA agent. But they couldn’t find evidence to substantiate this, because there was none.
The prosecutors were deadly serious in their efforts to develop a case, but they seemed sometimes like figures in a Kafka novel and sometimes those in a Marx brothers movie. When Iranian officials found that the inbox of Rezaian’s Gmail account was full to overflowing, they told him this was a sign he was a spy — that he was so disorganized, he must have been trained to be that way, perhaps to cover his tracks. At one court appearance, Rezaian’s lawyer made the seemingly unexceptional, boilerplate argument that if there was no evidence that Rezaian had committed a crime, he should be acquitted. The judge replied, “No one will tell me how to do my job.”
Eventually, the Iranian authorities abandoned the claims of espionage and charged him with a different offense. Through his neutral newspaper reporting, they said, Rezaian was trying to soften American public opinion toward Iran, to make the negotiations succeed — and thus to open the way for a more liberal, open Iran. And that, they said, was criminal.
In other words, Rezaian was said to be trying to undermine the Iranian regime through a strategy of “peaceful evolution.” John Foster Dulles, President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, first used that phrase to describe a strategy for liberalizing the Soviet Union without the use of force, and decades later, conservatives in China’s Communist Party drew on the wording to characterize American strategy in the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
“My personal hope was that Iran would someday become an open society,” writes Rezaian. “But to my captors, that was my biggest crime. And it didn’t matter that I wasn’t doing anything tangible toward that end. Just my being there to document what was happening was criminal enough.”
The Iranians gradually came under intense pressure from overseas to let Rezaian go. The appeals to release him extended from Rezaian’s family and his editors at The Post to, eventually, President Barack Obama and private Americans, including Muhammad Ali, Noam Chomsky and Edward Snowden. The end of Rezaian’s book includes a dramatic airport scene worthy of “Casablanca,” as the Iranians try to keep his wife in their grasp and a Swiss diplomat makes sure she gets out with him.
Not all of Rezaian’s book is as fast-reading as that final scene. There is a slow-going chapter about the many relatives in his large Iranian American family, and in general, the narrative about the incremental progress of his court case inches along. It is Rezaian’s descriptions of the way the Iranian regime operates at the working level — its twisted logic and paranoia — that make the book so worthwhile.
Barely two months into his captivity, for example, Rezaian’s jailers took him out of prison for a brief shopping expedition and then delivered a stern warning to him. “The Great Judge said you must buy flowers for your wife,” he was told. When he said he had no money, the jailer said he would just put it on Rezaian’s account.
Rezaian’s case can now be seen in a new light after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, another writer for The Post, who was most likely brutally murdered by officials of Saudi Arabia last year at their consulate in Istanbul.
Both cases demonstrate the dangers that journalists confront while working and traveling overseas. Khashoggi was a commentator; Rezaian a reporter. Khashoggi operated among elites, seeking to change ideas in the Middle East; Rezaian covered day-to-day events. Yet both men, in their different ways, were threatening to the regimes about which they were writing.
Under current American foreign policy, Iran is an adversary while Saudi Arabia is supposed to be a friendly country. Yet in the end, Rezaian’s fate in Iranian hands was better than Khashoggi’s with the Saudis.
Iran subjected Rezaian to a long captivity and what could be called psychological torture — but he was not beaten and was even accorded regular conjugal visits. Khashoggi was killed while in the process of trying to get married. Rezaian was given ridiculous show-trial hearings in court, but at least he was accorded some sort of trial — which was more than Khashoggi ever got.
And Rezaian is alive today. Thanks for small favors.
By Jason Rezaian
Ecco/Anthony Bourdain. 311 pp. $29.99