LANDSTUHL, Germany — It was the call that Yeganeh Salehi had been awaiting for more than a year. At 2 p.m. Saturday, she picked up the phone at her home in Iran and heard the voice of her husband, jailed American reporter Jason Rezaian.
“I have been told I am leaving for the airport right now,” he said.
Rezaian, the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, had been detained for 18 months in the city’s notorious Evin prison, held on vague espionage-related charges that he denied. His wife, an Iranian, had visited him nearly every week, watching him lose weight and suffer from periodic infections.
Now, Rezaian told his wife, they could meet quickly to say goodbye — until they could get her out of Iran, too.
“I’d never had such hope,” Salehi, 31, said this week.
What she did not know was that the phone call Saturday would be the beginning of a 25-hour ordeal during which Rezaian’s fate would seem to hang in the balance — as would her own.
In their first interview since Rezaian left Iran, his wife and his mother, Mary, described the tortuous end to a saga that began with the journalist’s arrest on July 22, 2014, and eventually involved top-level negotiations between Tehran and Washington that produced a deal to free him and three other jailed Iranian Americans.
For hours this past weekend, though, it was not clear that the deal would actually work out. As a Swiss air force jet waited on the tarmac at Tehran’s airport to take Rezaian and other former prisoners to freedom, Salehi and her mother-in-law, Mary Rezaian, mysteriously vanished as diplomats, friends and Jason’s brother, Ali, frantically tried to find them. The women later said they had been in the hands of Iran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guard Corps. It was unclear whether the incident was due to miscommunication or whether someone was trying to destroy the deal.
Salehi swung between concern and jubilation over her husband’s potential release as she and her husband’s mother were shuttled for hours between ornate reception halls and conference rooms at the airport.
“At some point I told her, ‘Mary, somebody wants us out of the picture and there is a reason for it,’ ” Salehi said. “ ‘Something is wrong.’ ”
Shortly after Jason Rezaian called on Saturday afternoon, his wife — who was with Mary Rezaian — received a phone call from a man who did not give his name. He told the women to go to the domestic terminal of the Tehran airport and wait for instructions. They knew the message was from the Iranian security services and hailed a taxi to the airport.
Hours passed. Calls began pouring in from friends and relatives as Iranian news outlets announced the release of four Iranian American prisoners but did not give names.
On a television set at the airport, Salehi suddenly saw a news ticker confirming the deal. Her husband’s was the first name on the list.
Salehi began “jumping, shouting, crying,” she later recalled.
The deal freed the four Iranian Americans in exchange for U.S. clemency offered to seven Iranians charged or imprisoned for sanctions violations and the dismissal of charges against 14 Iranians outside the United States.
Jason Rezaian, 39, born in Marin County, Calif., to an Iranian father and an American mother, had lived in Iran since 2008 and joined The Post in 2012. He and his wife were arrested together in 2014, but Salehi was freed on bail after three months. Rezaian was convicted following an espionage trial that ended last August, according to Iranian media. Iranian officials never made clear what charges were involved or whether a sentence had been imposed. No evidence of wrongdoing by Rezaian was ever released, The Post said.
As Salehi and her mother-in-law waited at the airport Saturday, a man wearing a surgical mask approached about 9 p.m. “Mrs. Salehi, come,” she later recalled him saying. He began leading her out of the terminal, with Mary Rezaian racing after them. Salehi knew immediately the man was from the security services. Apparently he wore the mask to hide his face.
Salehi had no idea what to expect. “I just knew that I had to put myself in their hands,” she recalled.
The masked man sat them in a silver Peugeot and drove them to the airport’s diplomatic terminal. The women’s phones were taken away, and they were brought into a massive entrance hall.
They were told they would see Rezaian. But first Salehi, then Mary Rezaian, were told they would have to speak on camera. State-television journalists began to ask questions. Who was responsible for Jason’s release? Were they happy?
“I will be happy when I know my son has left here and has landed safely in another place,” Rezaian’s mother told them.
Rezaian was in the next room. When his wife walked in, he stood, wearing his wedding suit, she recalled. Salehi had brought him the outfit a day earlier when prison officials requested clean clothing. It was the smallest suit he had, Salehi said, but he had lost so much weight that it looked several sizes too large.
Salehi thought this would be their last meeting for a while — maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe longer. Her husband was a U.S. citizen, but she was not. And who knew when Iranian authorities would permit her to leave?
But Rezaian was hesitant to show emotion; there were journalists and guards with video cameras in the room.
“I choked up, and he said, ‘Don’t cry,’ ” she said.
Salehi’s joy was mixed with anxiety for her husband and frustration that she was about to be separated from him — again. She told Rezaian to call her as soon as he landed and “not to put me in a situation where it’s six or seven hours and I don’t hear from you.”
The guards asked whether she was happy her husband would finally be released.
“He was getting the chance to leave, and I was still stuck,” she said. “So I was angry, and I told them.”
Mary Rezaian, who had moved to Iran seven months ago to be closer to her son, could leave the country any time she wanted on her American passport. But “I promised him I would stay behind until things got resolved with Yegi,” his wife, she said.
It was around 10 p.m. Saturday when Salehi and Mary Rezaian were brought into a vast, unheated reception hall with marble floors and portraits of Iranian leaders on the walls.
It was “colder than a meat locker,” Mary Rezaian recalled. The women were served kebabs, rice, seared tomatoes and colas and allowed a brief telephone call to Salehi’s parents, only to tell them that she would be home soon.
The women were told they could not leave, even as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN that the plane carrying the prisoners would soon depart.
Salehi and Mary Rezaian knew their disappearance would alarm friends and relatives, but they could not know how much.
Throughout Jason Rezaian’s incarceration, neither of the women had contact with U.S. officials. Ali, Jason’s brother, who was working to win his release, had kept them in the dark about efforts to free Jason, in order to protect them from Iranian officials seeking information.
Among the things that Salehi didn’t know: Her freedom was part of the deal. She was supposed to be joining him on the plane.
Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, played a key role in Rezaian’s release. On Saturday night, the Swiss ambassador went to the airport to meet with Rezaian and two other Iranian Americans, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, who were supposed to be flown home with him. Rezaian informed the ambassador that his wife and mother were in the airport. But the Iranians told the diplomat that the women had already left.
Around 1 a.m., the women were transferred to a warmer room with an antique carpet, accompanied now by a female official in a black chador and about 15 men from the Revolutionary Guard, wearing surgical masks.
The guards were polite but ignored their requests to leave, the women said.
“I didn’t feel afraid,” Rezaian’s mother said. “I just felt inconvenienced.”
At 5 a.m., as Rezaian was being handed over from the Revolutionary Guard to the Intelligence Ministry, a guard told the women that Rezaian’s plane had taken off and that they were free to go.
As she was led out of the building, Salehi heard a startling comment from one guard to another.
“The plane may take the wife, too,” he whispered.
Salehi and her mother-in-law caught a taxi toward the city and clicked on their phones, which were swamped with messages. One of them was from Ali Rezaian. “Where are you?” he wrote.
They called him. He told them that the plane had not left, that they were meant to be aboard, too. A Swiss diplomat would get in touch, Ali said.
Salehi went to her parents’ home. She already had a bag packed. Salehi exchanged “very short and quick but very emotional” goodbyes with her parents.
Unbeknownst to the women, the U.S. government had learned early Sunday that the Iranians wanted to let Rezaian and the other former prisoners leave but delay Salehi’s departure. Only after Secretary of State John F. Kerry called Zarif did the Iranian prosecutor general issue an order allowing Salehi and Mary Rezaian to board the Swiss jet.
On Sunday, an SUV with Swiss diplomatic plates raced through the city, carrying the ambassador, Salehi and Mary Rezaian to the airport. Swiss diplomats had orders not to let the women out of their sight. But when the group reached the airport, the two women were detained again. Salehi did not have a passport, and, according to U.S. diplomats, there was a hiccup over the flight manifest.
“The Iranians were playing games to the end,” a senior U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the deal.
It was not clear whether some Iranian officials wanted to spoil the deal or were hoping to use the women as a bargaining chip.
Hours later, the women were put in a van with the other released prisoners and driven to the plane, where they were turned over to the Swiss.
About 3 p.m. Sunday, the flight took off for Geneva as the former captives applauded. Jason Rezaian and his family would later head to Germany, where he would receive medical treatment at a U.S. military base.
When they touched down in Switzerland, someone introduced Salehi to Brett McGurk, the lead U.S. negotiator in the prisoner release.
“We got you out! One day I’ll tell you the whole story of the past 20 hours,” Salehi recalled him saying.
It was at that moment, she said, that she realized “it was a real war to get me out.”
Carol Morello in Davos, Switzerland, contributed to this report.