Jason Rezaian: 544th and final day imprisoned in Iran among the hardest

February 04, 2019 03:27 PM
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Greta Van Susteren, VOA Contributor:

Jason, it’s great to see you here in the United States.
Jason Rezaian, Author, “Prisoner”, Washington Post Global Opinions writer: It’s good to be back in the United States. Thank you, Greta.  
GVS: You have had quite a journey overseas, to say the least.
JR: Indeed. I was living in Iran for many years, reporting from there for the Washington Post and others. And then got thrown in jail and was a guest of the ayatollahs for a year and a half.
GVS: In fact, you’ve written a new book called “Prisoner,” which I’ve read and is captivating. Of course, I’ve also followed your story and what happened to you for a number of years. Let me start at the beginning. You were born here in the United States, right?
JR: Yes, in San Francisco, to an Iranian father and an American mother.
GVS: So, by an Iranian father, meaning, your father was born in Iran?
JR: Born and raised in Iran, moved to the US to attend college and like so many other immigrants around the world, made a life for himself here in the United States.
GVS: When is the first time you went to Iran?
JR: I didn’t go until 2001. The spring of 2001. I was 25 years old. I was a recent college grad. I was an aspiring journalist. I loved to travel. I’d been around the world to Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Europe. And I had my sights on Iran for a long time and finally got the opportunity to go in 2001.
GVS: Alright, if we can carve out the time, the 544 days you were in prison, is it fair to say – this might have a complicated or a simple answer – that you love Iran?
JR: I love Iran deeply. I love its people, its culture, its food, my wife who comes from Iran, my family. But I have a very complicated relationship with the country and the authorities now because of what they did to me. But also, even dating back to before that, as a journalist working there in an authoritarian society where there are great limitations on the work that we do as journalists, it was never an easy relationship.
GVS: You know – it’s, it’s – as I read your book and of course I know the story, it’s bizarre how you were – why you were picked up. Why were you picked up?
JR: Well look, I think there’s different layers to that. On the one hand, they pick me up, ostensibly, because they said I was the CIA station chief in Tehran. Um –
GVS: Did you work for the CIA?
JR: Never. I’ve never worked for any U.S. government agency. Um and their evidence of that was so flimsy, but they built a massive case against me publicly and in the court. But ultimately, I believe that I was taken as leverage in negotiations with the United States.
GVS: And that means in the nuclear negotiations and the sanctions?
JR: Exactly. In 2014, as the Iranian regime was getting closer to a deal with the U.S. and world powers over their nuclear program and what to do about it, with the promise of lifting sanctions and a return to the international financial community, there were forces within the Iranian regime that did not want to see that happen. That were more comfortable working in an isolated way. And those were the people who took me.
GVS: Alright. There were other Americans living in Iran. Why you? Was it the Washington Post? Just bad luck? The fact that you had an Iranian father?
JR: I think it was a combination of things. The fact that I was a dual national – a U.S. national and an Iranian national – and while you’re in Iran, if you’re the offspring of an Iranian, you are automatically an Iranian citizen. You can’t undo that. Uh, so you’re subject to the rules and regulations of that country and also you’re barred from any diplomatic help from your other nationality. In the case of Americans, we don’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. We haven’t since 1980 since the hostages were taken from the U.S. embassy there. So the Swiss government becomes the protecting power of Americans in Iran.  The Swiss tried very valiantly and gallantly to get access to me and help me but were never able to do that because the Iranians said ‘He’s an Iranian citizen, this is a matter of our own national security. Butt out.’ At the same time, the fact that I was working for the Washington Post and the only U.S citizen working at such a high level publicly, I think that that’s what led to it. This combination of ‘we can treat him like an Iranian in court’ but later we can use him as trade bait with America’.
GVS: Alright. Now you wrote about something unusual in the book. One is that you had a Kick Starter program having to do with avocados. And they thought that avocados for your Kick Starter program was some code.
JR: Code for something nefarious, they just didn’t know what. For many months they would interrogate me about this – uh, I’m sure they’re watching this back in Tehran, thinking to themselves, ‘He got away with it. The avocado project that we never figured out what it was.’
GVS: Well what was it?
JR: Well, at the end of the day, it was an attempt – sort of a tongue in cheek attempt at trying to explain to the world why Iran and how Iran is cut off from the rest of the world. I wanted to see why there were no avocados there. It’s a country where you can grow just about anything, but for some reason, this beloved fruit that everybody likes to put on their toast or dip with a chip in guacamole – is not present there. It this – is it because of sanctions? Is this because of some sort of Islamic prohibition? Uh, is there something else wrong? It was just one more project to explain something that I wanted to undertake.
GVS: Do you think your interrogators, while you were there for 544 days, they knew that – they knew that you weren’t part of the CIA. That you weren’t there for some sinister reason. That you were a journalist working in a foreign country? Or at least foreign to me – you have dual citizenship. You think they knew that?
JR: I think that the people who were the architects of my arrest and the ones who are trying desperately to keep Iran shut off from the rest of the world know that I didn’t do anything wrong. But I think the lower level ones, the interrogators and the people who were involved in capturing me and others that were actually doing the work, on some level have to believe it to continue doing this work. But ultimately, I recount in the book at the very end that my interrogator said ‘we know you didn’t do anything wrong.
GVS: And you hugged him?
JR: Well, yeah! I mean, it’s a human emotion!
GVS: When you left?
JR: When I left I hugged my interrogator, not because I liked him, but because we’d spent a year and a half. You’ve seen Rocky. At the end of Rocky, you know, they go to blows, they go to 13 rounds. And uh, one of them wins. The other one’s tires. They’re both bloody, they’re both tired and they hugged each other. And that’s what happened.
GVS: Looking now, reading the book you’d think – it’s a very captivating book. But, when you were there and I would speak to your brother on occasion and interview him, it was horrifying. I mean, I – did you feel when you were incarcerated the 544 days, did you suspect that you might be executed?
JR: In the early weeks I didn’t know what to think. I was confused, I was scared, but I assumed it would end. Then as solitary confinement dragged on, I became very desperate. And they would tell me that, ‘you’re on the verge of execution and within hours, we’re going to behead you.’
GVS: “What’s that like?
JR: That’s scary as hell! But the next day they’d tell you, ‘no, no, no, no – we’re going to let you go tomorrow’ right? So it’s this ‘good cop, bad cop’ manipulation of the mind that goes on and it took me many months to understand that my fate was tied up in this negotiation with the U.S. and other powers and that ultimately, the likelihood was that it was going to be the U.S. President that decided my fate. That he would have to be the one to step in and say ‘Enough is enough. We have to do whatever we can to bring this person home.’ And ultimately, that’s what happened.
GVS: And ultimately, the deal was struck, I think, about July 2015 and you didn’t come home July 2015. You didn’t come home until January 2016.
JR: That’s right.
GVS: So when July 2015 rolled around and the deal was cut and you’re still sitting in a prison, and a pretty awful prison in Tehran, what did you think?
JR: That was a low point for me. Uh, I had believed and I think many other people had believed in the west, in America, in the media, Iran watchers, all thought that when the deal was signed I would be released. When that didn’t happen, the sense of urgency, I think, for my family, for my colleagues at the Washington Post and for the U.S. government rose exponentially. We didn’t know this at the time, but there were secret negotiations going on for my release –
GVS: Separate from the –
JR: Separate from the nuclear negotiations.
GVS: With also the pastor, the American pastor who was held there and, and –
JR: Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, the marine. And a couple of other people who were under house arrest in Iran, who were also dual nationals who were, ultimately, released in exchange for seven Iranians who were Imprisoned here in America. As I recount in the book, those seven Iranians, who were also dual nationals, decided not to go back to Iran. So –
GVS: They stayed here in the United States?
JR: They stayed here! I mean, wouldn’t you?
GVS: I’d stay here. What about – I mean, one of the other things I know you touched on in your book, you said that at least one discussion on the plane when you were leaving, that you said were unaware about what happened to him, but Bob Levinson – and I have followed that story since March of 2007, he’s a former CIA, former FBI, who went over there under supposedly some investigation, but he disappeared on the island of Kish. And there was a ‘proof of life’ posted photo where he’s in an orange jumpsuit about 2010, 2011. Um, any information, any thoughts about what happened to Bob Levinson?”
JR: I don’t’ have any specific information. I was kept isolated throughout that time. But my belief is there’s a very good chance that he’s still alive, that we should continue to press the Iranian government for answers because they have those answers, they know exactly what happened to him, from my point of view. And until that there’s proof that he’s no longer living, we should assume that he is alive and do everything in our power to bring him home. I know that the FBI has been very adamant in their quests to bring him back. Unfortunately, that hasn’t borne any fruit yet.
GVS: I’ve spoken to many FBI and retired FBI who are convinced he is still alive. What would be, in your thought, what would be the motive for Iran keeping it secret, not providing any information, because they’re not saying, there’s no sort of leverage if you say ‘we don’t have him, we don’t know what happened.’
JR: His arrest happened during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who we all remember for his sort of anti-west and anti-Semite beliefs and attitudes that he made very public. The current Iranian administration that replaced him, the Rouhani administration, has done everything it could to distance itself from his record. And they see that the Levinson debacle, kidnapping, however you want to describe it, is a legacy of that administration and it serves no political purpose for them to close the deal. So I think they should be pressed on it and I know that the US government, in its negotiations that ended with my release and the release of others, made it clear there won’t be any further negotiations without a full accounting of Bob Levinson.
GVS: And that was, of course, a prior presidential administration, and now we’re into a new one. I’ve known the Levinson family, I’ve interviewed them many times just like your family as well. It appears to me that stories such as your own and Bob Levinson, often its high profile in the beginning, and then the US media sort of drifts off. You had the advantage of having your brother, who was your strongest advocate. He would contact me often. It’s so painful for these families that I don’t think that most people get how painful it is, and it’s not so painful to the governments, or to people who don’t know or to the media who moves on.
JR: I read a great book by Joel Simon who is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. It’s called “We Want to Negotiate.” And it’s about government hostage policies. It came out the same day as “Prisoner,” just about 10 days ago. It gives a clear-cut look at how governments deal with hostage takings and how media deals with it as well. And I think you’re right. That initial push can often go quite. And the longer it drags on the harder it is to create new news around these kidnappings or hostage takings. So, you know, I’ve taken it as a responsibility in my reporting for the Washington Post to continue to write about all these people at any opportunity I get.
GVS: And it doesn’t cost a dime for any of us to tweet ‘Help Bob Levinson’ or ‘Free Jason’ or even, you wear, you have, Austin Tice, who is an American who is believed to be in Syria or someplace.
JR: He’s been in Syria in custody, we believe, since 2012, and all signs are that he is still alive and he should be returned home to his family as soon as possible. Again, we can’t expect the Iranian government or the Syrian government or the Islamic State, the Taliban to do the right thing. For that reason, the US government has to step in sometimes and say ‘we’re going to protect our citizens wherever they are in the world.’
GVS: How bad is solitary confinement?
JR: Solitary confinement should be outlawed across the board. Period. In the United States, in Iran and everywhere in between. It’s designed to make you go insane if you’re subjected to it. And in a lot of ways, it’s very effective. The impact of that becomes permanent after about 20 days. That’s what all the science shows. I spent 49 days in solitary confinement …
GVS: What, there’s nothing to do?
JR: Not only is there nothing to do, you’re in a very small space.
GVS: How big was your cell?
JR: Just slightly larger than this table.
GVS: Which is, what, four by eight?
JR: About four by eight. I had a hole in the ground for a toilet and that was my life. I paced the length of that …
GVS: How many days?
JR: 49. And 72 for my wife. It’s a horrible experience and all it’s designed to do, it’s not designed to…
GVS: Your wife was in solitary for 72…?
JR: 72. 72.
GVS: I didn’t realize that.
JR: It’s designed to really disconnect you from reality. You don’t have any sensory stimulation. You’re not talking to anybody, obviously. There are no books to read, not television, no music. It is what it is called. Its confinement in solitude. And it’s torture.
GVS: Food?
JR: Food was given to me on a twice-daily basis while I was in solitary. I have high blood pressure and I’m on medication for that. My mother made a very big deal about that publicly in the early days of my arrest and they started medicating me. Each day they would take me to have my blood pressure checked. I’d weigh myself. In the first 40 days of solitary confinement, I lost 40 pounds. That’s not a diet that I recommend to anybody. But it worked.
GVS: In your book, and it’s quite exciting, I tip my hat to the Swiss. The Swiss were terrific in helping you get out, in negotiating because we don’t have diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. I want people to read your book. I don’t want to tell too much about your departure, but is there a way to describe when those wheels lifted up from Tehran with your wife on the plane, and you were getting out of there.
JR: I will say this. That deal that transpired between Iran and the United States and other countries that ended Iran’s nuclear activities and lifted sanctions and released me and others was supposedly implemented on January 16th, 2016. My plane from Tehran didn’t take off until about 4 pm on January 17th, 2016. That’s about the last 30 pages or so of this story. And the stress of those last 24 hours is something I hope to never repeat. Of all of those 544 days, the 544th was among the top two or three hardest.
GVS: I was in close contact with, I won’t tell you which one, with one of the other people who was traveling with you who was released, also his family, and listening to minute by minute almost of what they knew, of what they were getting from the Swiss, I think that most Americans who followed this closely, you almost got tearful because we were so happy to get our Americans home.
JR: I’ll tell you, we got out of Iranian airspace, a Swiss diplomat stepped forward and said, “I haven’t given you any information yet. I’m going to explain to you, now that we are out of Iranian airspace, where we’re headed. But first, let’s celebrate,” and he popped a bottle of champagne and it was very sweet.
GVS: Sort of the whole sadness, besides the personal thing your family went through and you did, is that the Iranian people have a rich history, interesting and fascinating history. And Americans and Iranians, but for this nuclear crisis…
JR: Have a very good relationship going back…
GVS: Have a very good relationship and its two countries that should be friends.
JR: And I think it won’t be long until they are again. I just think a lot of things have to change on both sides for that to be possible.
GVS: Would you like to go back?
JR: I’d love to go back, not in the current situation. I miss it tremendously. I miss my friends. I miss the places we used to go. I miss the hospitality and really the attitude of people there. But I also appreciate my freedom more than anything.
GVS: I don’t think you would be welcome back by the government.
JR: No, I promise you, I would not … Well, I’d be welcomed, but I wouldn’t be invited to leave again.
GVS: When you’ve come back after being gone 544 days, you had problems to deal with here, how to do your taxes, bills you hadn’t paid. It’s quite an ordeal when someone who’s been a hostage is finally released.
JR: It‘s an incredible ordeal. There are things about it that normal folks would never even think about. As you mentioned, taxes were one issue. It took two and a half years for me to convince the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) that being held as a hostage in a foreign country was grounds to have my late fines and penalties lifted. I don’t blame the IRS for that. But there’s no mechanism in place to figure these things out. And I think that the happiness and exuberance that people show is wonderful, but at the same time, after you’ve been in that sort of isolation and under that sort of fear, your trust in the world and the people you come in contact with is damaged.
GVS: Your wife is Iranian. She’s now here in the United States. Have we welcomed her? Have Americans welcomed her? Does she feel comfortable here?
JR: I think by and large she feels comfortable. She’s enjoyed the experience of getting to know America and Americans in the many different communities here. But she’s also learned that it’s a struggle. It’s not the easiest place to get established in. It’s not as easy as it was during my dad’s time, 50 years ago to make a life for yourself in the United States. We’ve had help. But we’ve also had obstacles. My most recent report in the Washington Post was a video I did of couples just like us who have been barred from living together --- one Iranian and one American --- because of the travel ban. And fortunately, we arrived in the US before that travel ban was instituted, and sort of institutionalized last summer. But if we hadn’t, I don’t know how easy it would have been for her to come here.
GVS: One last question. The Foreign Minister of Iran. Is he the pivotal “bad guy” so to speak? Do you think he was pulling a lot of the strings here?
JR: I don’t think he was pulling a lot of the strings, but publically, he, as someone who was educated and lived many years in the United States, had an opportunity to... he represents, globally represents, the part of the Iranian regime that is sort of outward leaning and wants to connect with the rest of the world. He had a great opportunity to say “we as a government do not accept or respect hostage-taking and we don’t condone this.” But he just did the opposite.
GVS: Welcome home. A great book, “The Prisoner.” And I’m glad to see you home. I got to know your brother over the course of the time but I never dreamed I’d be so lucky as to meet you here in person, out of custody, so I’m glad to have you home.
JR: Always a pleasure to see you, Greta.