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‘Their job is to scare me’: Jason Rezaian describes first terrifying hours inside Iranian prison

Washington Post editors share new details of the high-stakes global effort to free reporter Jason Rezaian from an Iranian prison. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi, Kate Woodsome, Danielle Kunitz, Sarah Hashemi, Osman Malik, Atthar Mirza, William Neff/The Washington Post)

The author, who was serving as The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran, and his wife, Yeganeh, were arrested by Iranian authorities on July 22, 2014. Jason would spend 18 months in Iran’s Evin prison, and Yeganeh was separately imprisoned there for 72 days. This account, excerpted from his book Prisoner, to be published Jan. 22, describes his early hours in custody.

I was being led, blindfolded, through corridors and finally into an air-conditioned room. At the door I was instructed to take my shoes off—in Iran, it is customary to take one’s shoes off indoors. Two men, whom I couldn’t see, sat me down in a vinyl chair.

There were a lot of other people in the room. I could hear whispers, and people pacing, and prayer beads being thumbed. I could smell the competing body odors of different men.

After a few minutes, a male voice addressed me.

“Do you know why you are here, Mr. Jason?”

“No,” I said, turning my head in the direction of his voice.

“You’re the head of the American CIA station in Tehran,” he said. He never raised his voice, but he was accusatory: “We know it. And you have a choice. Tell us everything, and you’ll go home. You’ll get on that flight to the United States on Friday as planned, but you’ll be starting a new life working for the Ministry of Intelligence of the Islamic Republic.” The offer was absurd in its directness and so I didn’t think he was completely serious.

“If not, you must change your clothes. When you put the prison clothes on it’s not clear how long you’re going to be here. The odds are you will spend the rest of your life as our guest. You’ll never get out of here. So tell us everything.”

“There’s nothing to tell,” I said. “I’m just a journalist. You’ve made a mistake. This is all wrong. I’m just a journalist.”

“Just a journalist has no value to me,” said the voice.

I was trying to rationalize with somebody whose logic was very different from my own. He had his position and he wasn’t deviating from it.

The voice started throwing out names of well-known Iranians and Americans, people I knew, people from the news, and people I’d never heard of. “What’s your relationship with John Kerry? What’s your relationship with Obama?”

“I’ve never met either of them,” I said, which was true. The idea that I knew the top officials of the United States was ridiculous. Everything I said, though, just seemed to make the hole I was in deeper.

I tried to talk my way out of it. I explained to him that the work that I did was for the Washington Post. I explained that I was permitted to work in this country. I said this was just a misunderstanding. I told him to call the press ministry. They had literally just reissued a one-year extension of my press credential that morning for Christ’s sake.

“You’re a spy. We have all of the proof. And you just need to tell us,” the voice said calmly. “Everything.”

“If you have proof, why do I need to tell you everything?” I asked.

“We need to know that you’re reliable. That we can trust you to cooperate,” he told me.

“I’m not reliable,” I said. “I don’t work for America and I’m not going to work for you. I work for the Washington Post.”

There was a pause, and he began talking again as if he were reading from a secret memo.

“ ‘Alan Eyre,’ ” the voice said. “ ‘Avocado. T-shirt.’ What does it mean?”

I thought, Okay, I can explain all of this.

Alan Eyre was a diplomat who happened to be the State Department’s highest-ranking Farsi speaker, and for that reason alone the Iranian regime regarded him with suspicion. He had been based in Dubai for years, which is where I first met him. I had just run into him the week before at the nuclear talks in Vienna.

In 2010 I’d launched a project on Kickstarter, the crowdfunding website, about why there were no avocados grown in Iran. Of all of the many things I had seen in Iran over the years, the most troubling was one thing that I didn’t see. There were no avocados to be had inside the Islamic Republic. So at a time when it was too risky to cover the day-to-day politics, Iran’s lack of avocados became an obsession I had to get to the bottom of.

Where was the guacamole?

The Iranian Avocado Quest was an attempt to make a point. The very simple fact that the beloved avocado was almost unknown in Iran proved the first part of my argument: that Iran was cut off from the world, even in benign ways. The project would help explain part of the issue: what stands in the way of building a bridge, even a seemingly frivolous one.

Listen on Post Reports: Jason Rezaian discusses how the online campaign about avocados led to his imprisonment

Many folks took it as a joke, but that’s sometimes the best way to get people thinking about a new subject. I ended my project pitch with a plea:

“I think the time is now for the American people to connect more closely to Iranian society however they can. And I’m offering a bridge to do just that. Hope you join me for the ride. I will bring the avocado to Iran, but I can’t do it without your support. The future of Persian guacamole is in your hands.”

In return for each $20 pledge to help me start an avocado farm, if successful in fund-raising, I would distribute T-shirts to funders. Including Alan Eyre. The thought of my avocado project made him laugh and he’d wanted to pitch in a few bucks when I had seen him once in Dubai. He was, he said, in it for the T-shirt. It didn’t matter; the project failed to reach its funding goal.

“It was a joke project that failed,” I said from beneath the blindfold. “There’s been a misunderstanding.”

“No, there’s no mistake, Mr. Jason. It means,” the voice answered his own question, “you are the head of CIA operations in Iran. This is our proof that you are what we say you are.”

“This is ridiculous.” I was still trying to make light of the situation. Something I had done a million times before in my life and it almost always worked.

“Perhaps, but if you’re just a journalist, why would you have contact with Alan Eyre?”

“I interview and sometimes communicate with people, including officials. This is a normal part of the job.”

I tried to further explain Kickstarter and the significance—or lack thereof—of avocados, but blindfolded and under duress in Farsi, and speaking to an unknown audience, I had reached the limit of my capabilities. This went on for a few minutes.

They brought Yegi into the room. She was crying, obviously struggling.

“Jason, what’s going on?” she asked. “They’ve changed me into prison clothes. Why are you not in prison clothes?”

“This is all going to finish soon, baby,” I told her. “Just be calm.”

“Have you done anything wrong? They’re saying terrible things about you,” she said clearly but tearfully. “Jason, just tell me you’re not a spy.”

“Of course I’m not a spy,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I love you.” She wasn’t in the room for more than two minutes. And then they took her away, and there was no more sound.

“Mr. Jason, you still have the opportunity to tell us everything right now,” the voice said.

Another voice interjected; this one had the distinct and musical accent typical of people from the city of Esfahan. “Dear Jason, the Great Judge is making you an offer and he never breaks his promises. Just tell us what you know,” he said.

“I have nothing to tell you,” I said.

“He’s afraid,” the first voice, the one that belonged to the Great Judge, said to the others in the room. “He’s afraid. Change his clothes and take him to the cell. He’ll start talking within a month.”

I’ll start talking in a month? That’s pretty over-the-top, I thought. There’s no way I’m going to be here more than tonight, and maybe tomorrow. Their job is to scare me.

I had too much working in my favor. The press ministry would be on my side. The foreign ministry would be on my side. President Rouhani was in the middle of negotiations on the nuclear talks that he needed to work. The Washington Post would be on my side.

But it was the first real moment where I thought, This might be worse than I think.

They led me out of the room where I’d spent the last half an hour being interrogated and down an outdoor corridor into another room, where they took off the blindfold and the handcuffs. It was even more confusing without my glasses.

We were in a small infirmary. There was a patient’s bed built into the wall. I saw cotton swabs and tongue depressors, a blood pressure cuff, and the thing with the little bulb a doctor uses to look into ears. There was someone there in a white coat—they called him “Doctor,” but who knows what he was.

They told me to take off all my clothes except my underwear.

They weighed me. They took my blood pressure. I was shaking.

They handed me a set of their version of prison blues. Light blue pajamas, basically. Pants with an elastic waist without a clear front or back, and a shirt with four big plastic buttons. They gave me a pair of flip-flops and a pair of prison underwear—darker blue.

Then they led me through a hallway and stopped at a door. They pointed in, and that was that. By the time I actually got into the cell on the night I was arrested, it was past midnight.

The cell was small, about eight and a half feet by four and a half feet; I could lie down completely in one direction but not the other. The ceilings were ten feet high. There were two windows above, with bars on them that let in light but no view. Those windows let me know approximately what time of day it was.

An aluminum door led to a toilet—a hole in the ground, as they are in that part of the world—and a tiny sink. The door had many things crudely engraved in it. None of it was in English. There were many rows of four lines with one line cutting through. Exactly like you imagine from the prison movies you’ve seen. Some of those sets of lines added up to more than a hundred.

There were two blankets and a dirty, crudely cut fragment of a ­machine-made Persian rug, in a Kashan pattern, with an elaborate floral design, on the concrete floor. That’s what I would sleep on, or try to.

There were two fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling that I quickly learned would stay on twenty-four hours a day. There was a fan in the room that made a crazy amount of noise. They obviously didn’t want me to actually sleep. It was extremely warm.

The door had two holes: one at eye level that they could open and talk to me through, and one down below, which, I figured out, was for food.

There was a copy of the Quran in Farsi and Arabic.

I don’t think that first night I slept at all. I was just waiting for somebody to come whom I could talk some sense into.

I sat, but pretty soon I started to pace. I ended up spending a lot of time in that cell walking back and forth. I was so confused, and so unprepared, but still optimistic that this thing, whatever it was, was going to go away. I would be out in a couple of days. I have things working in my favor. But I was very afraid for Yegi—where she was, what they might be doing to her, what she was going through.

I thought, I can handle this. I have to handle this. But I had a real feeling of responsibility for my dear young wife who had never been put in any sort of perilous situation before. Neither had I, actually.

The call to prayer always starts whenever the first sliver of sun comes up. Around four A.M., I heard it. During Ramadan, that’s when people eat, before they begin their fasting for the day.

A guard I couldn’t see brought me water and some food: herbs, a piece of cheese, a couple of walnut halves, and a single sheet of bread called lavash.

Excerpt from “Prisoner” by Jason Rezaian. Copyright 2019 by Jason Rezaian. Excerpted by permission of Anthony Bourdain/Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Plane leaves Iran with Post reporter, other Americans in swap

10 harrowing details about Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi’s imprisonment in Iran

Freeing a reporter: Secret diplomatic talks and private back channels

Jason Rezaian’s wife, mother describe their tortuous final hours in Iran