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The Hard Cell

Marin County native Jason Rezaian's long road from an Iranian prison

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BEOWOLF SHEEHAN
  • Beowolf Sheehan

When the chips were really down for Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter and former Iranian hostage says he'd reflect on one of his late father's Yogi Berra–type malapropisms.

His father, Taghi, an Iranian émigré to Marin County in the 1950s was "filled with jokes," says Rezaian, "He had these sayings that didn't make 100 percent sense, but when you thought about it, they did." His dad, well-known in the community, ran a Persian rug emporium in San Rafael for decades, and Rezaian says he still has lots of relatives in and around the Bay Area, though he hasn't lived here for years.

While reporting on Iranian life for the Post in 2014, Rezaian and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested by Iranian security forces and accused of espionage.

He spent 544 days in the country's most notorious prison, known as Evin—around six months of those in solitary confinement. His ordeal is recounted in Prisoner, a memoir just published on the late Anthony Bourdain's imprint at HarperCollins, Ecco Books. He's back in his hometown for several readings scheduled around the Bay Area.

The Marin County native, a graduate of Marin Academy High School, is in his early 40s and lives in Washington, D.C., now with his wife. Before their hostage crisis, they'd decided that they'd never have kids—now he says they're considering it, though with a laugh he adds that the nine-month window has not yet opened.

Rezaian was subjected to intense psychological torture during his ordeal, which ended when he was freed as part of President Barack Obama's negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. His detainment included multiple threats that he'd be executed. He was repeatedly told to sign a confession as a condition of his release but heroically held the line against his captors and only ever admitted to doing his job at the Post, which was to report on Iranian life from the street-side and culturally engaged perspective of a returning son.

One of his dad's Yogisms came in very handy, he says. "If you worry, you're going to die," he would advise his son. "If you don't worry, you're going to die. So don't worry."

He tried to not worry, despite his guards' numerous threats that they'd cut off his fingers and toes, that he'd be executed. He spent months in a solitary confinement cell in the prison, and even there, he says, his natural optimism helped him to deal with the soul-crushing conditions.

"You have to keep separate sets of mental books," he says by way of explaining how he survived long periods in solitary. (As his plight unfolded, Rezaian would eventually spend significant time with other inmates in a two-person cell.) "On the one hand, the fear and anxiety is omnipresent. But you learn that if you let that take everything over, it takes everything over. This is not a place where I or anybody wants to be, and I looked at my situation as always: I'm in this prison, considered one of the worst in the world. But just around me, I could see people who were in worse situations, cellmates who were more isolated, who couldn't speak to the guards."

Rezaian would come to look forward to his interrogations, he says in his book, because they would at least afford him human contact. He eventually came to appreciate that he was a player in a big unfolding negotiation between the United States and the Rouhani regime. He thought: "This is horrible, but it could be worse and worse and worse. Some days, it did get worse. Other days, there were glimmers of hope. I'm optimistic by nature."

The first few weeks of Rezaian's confinement were filled with fear and bewilderment. "I didn't know what to think," he says, and in his book writes how he repeatedly claimed his innocence and that this was all a big mistake. That was the first few days, he says. "Then the reality sets in." His guards told him that the whole world already thought he was dead anyway, that the Washington Post didn't care, and neither did the Obama Administration.

"Then the fear of influences on your thinking comes in," he says. The guards would take him out of his "tiny vacuum sealed cell," and then at least he'd be having interactions with people, even if they were threatening to cut off his fingers. Now Rezaian saw his captors let down their guard a bit. They threatened him with physical violence but never beat him. "Then you start to see—this is a hostage-taking. This particular moment in this country's trajectory is not going to be served by killing an American."

Still, he did fear that he'd be left behind in the Iran nuclear deal since scrapped by Donald Trump. Rezaian feared it might be a long time before he was released.

What he could not and did not know while in prison was that his older brother, Ali, his employers at the Post, officials in the Obama Administration—not to mention Marin Congressman Jared Huffman—were working on his release from the day he was arrested. "I can't say it because I'm a journalist working for the Washington Post," he says with a laugh, "but vote for Huffman!" He credits the pol for his dogged efforts on his behalf; Huffman was at a German airport to meet Rezaian when he was released.

Upon his release, Rezaian recalls that it was encouraging to him to know, in hindsight, that every time then-Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Iranian counterparts during the nuclear negotiations, Rezaian's name came up in the negotiation.

That was encouraging. "What's disheartening," he says, "is that several [Americans] have been taken hostage since I was released, and there is no conversation going on with the United States and Iran right now, and for those people who are saying, 'Don't talk to evil, don't negotiate with evil,'—well, that's shortsighted," and of no comfort to the hostage's families.

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