by John Limbert
Beginning July 2014, the Iranians had a problem. For reasons known only to themselves, Revolutionary Guards Security Officers arrested Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi, his wife of 15 months, in the garage of their apartment building in Tehran. Now what were the Iranians going to do? They spent the next year-and-a-half climbing out of the hole they’d dug for themselves.
Jason’s story, Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, combines tragedy, suspense, hubris, terror, and farce in the best dramatic tradition. The tragedy was that until his arrest, Jason—a rare American journalist based in Tehran—had been doing brilliant reporting of a kind almost never seen from Iran.
Jason’s reporting—before it was so sadly interrupted—conveyed to his readers an image of a complicated society where opposing strains of thought simultaneously coexist and make war on each other. His articles also revealed a highly creative society where people push the limits of what is permissible and, despite imposed restrictions, produce work of the highest quality in science, literature, film, sculpture, and painting. Finally, he depicted a society that rejects international isolation and—in the longstanding traditions of Iranian history—seeks connections with and sustenance from the outside world.
As a journalist, Jason used his Persian language skills, instinct, keen observation, and first-hand encounters to convey how Iranians deal with issues large and small affecting their daily lives. In a January 2012 report entitled “Iran Bazaar Sees Rush to Dump Rial as Sanctions Hurt Economy,” he wrote:
In Tehran’s shopping district, a crowd gathers around a man standing on a raised platform with arms aloft to display his merchandise: a stack of 500-euro bills.
The Bazaar-e-Arz, the narrow 19th-century arcade that’s the center of Iran’s foreign exchange market, is crammed with people trying to sell their currency as sanctions tighten and tensions with the U.S. escalate. In nearby shops, imported laptops and smart-phones change price hourly.
Rasool, a 33-year-old office worker who declined to give his full name, earns about $600 per month and bought $300 from a co-worker last week at [the free market rate]. Asked why he wanted dollars so badly, he replied that all of his colleagues were buying them and he didn’t want to be left behind.
Jason knew that he had to step carefully to avoid Iran’s ever-shifting red lines. He represented the media of a hostile country that, according to Iran’s supreme leader, plots day and night for the Islamic Republic’s overthrow. Furthermore as someone born abroad of an Iranian father, he was regarded by the authorities as an Iranian citizen, subject to the whims of the Iranian judicial system without any consular protection.
In his reporting, he deliberately avoided analysis or conclusions such as “the poor feel betrayed” or “the government’s ineptitude has ruined the economy.” Instead he let the facts speak for themselves and let his readers draw their conclusions.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the quality of his reporting, Jason was caught in the bear-pit of Iranian domestic politics. That same balance angered some officials, who resented the new atmosphere of dialogue and preferred to stoke the fires of hostility between Iran and the rest of the world. In Jason’s case, the authorities of the Islamic Republic (again) shot themselves in the foot by silencing someone whose reporting was both balanced and multi-dimensional. Iranian officials claim that they want the world to see such a picture and complain how the foreign press distorts Iranian realities. Jason was someone who did not distort—and he went to jail for his trouble.
During Jason’s time in prison, his captors never claimed that his reporting was inaccurate or biased. Instead, the authorities constructed an absurd scenario of Jason at the center of a “soft-overthrow” conspiracy involving avocados, t-shirts, kick-starting, and the phrase “radio silence.” In moments of honesty, however, they also told him that they were holding him to be exchanged for Iranians imprisoned in the United States.
Anyone familiar with jail or with the Islamic Republic will identify with Jason’s story. His first reaction was, “This is a mistake. Someone screwed up. An adult will fix this.” Then came the awakening: “There are no adults. No one’s going to fix it. I’m here for the duration, whatever that is.” Next came the understanding that he was entering a world where nothing made sense—a mental asylum where the craziest inmates were in charge.
Confronted with absurd charges, Jason first told himself, “I can explain all this.” Of course he never could.When he understood the reality of his situation—that it was futile to try to make sense of events—Jason used his knowledge and his sense of humor to fight back.
His interrogator, Kazem, once accused him of visiting a hotel in Dubai where people “drink alcohol, swim and have sex.”
Jason responded, “I’ve never been to that hotel, but if I ever get back to Dubai can you give me the name of it?”
He told himself, “If they kill my sarcasm, the terrorists will have won.”
In the same exchange Kazem said, “You met your wife [at that hotel].”
Knowing that speaking about another man’s wife was the height of rudeness to Iranians, he responded, “Why are you talking about my wife?” When Kazem would not relent, Jason told him simply, “Fuck you.” As an Iranian who had broken the rules, Kazem was forced to swallow the obscenity.
Jason’s moving account brings what we have come to expect from his journalism: elegance, feeling, and wit. He admits that his emotions about his wife’s and his father’s country are complicated. He loved much about the country and the culture, but he wasn’t always loved back. He found himself especially attracted to Iranian food, and at one time considered running specialized tours for foreigners that emphasized cuisine. He even planned to print brochures that said, “Visit Iran. It’s not that bad.”
John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.