Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a native Californian who has U.S. and Iranian citizenship, faces a closed-door trial in Tehran Revolutionary Court. His friends say his cultivation of contacts with government sources is all it would take to draw official suspicion.
TEHRAN, Iran — For Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter now on trial for espionage in Iran, the incident was extraordinary but still looked like another example of the difficulties in covering the country’s politics.
On a spring day in March 2014, his wife and a female photographer were stopped in broad daylight in their car on a busy Tehran highway and taken into a van, where, friends say, a dozen men and a woman interrogated them about the photographer’s personal connection to the office of Iran’s president.
Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a reporter for a United Arab Emirates newspaper, were sufficiently shaken by the episode to report it to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which accredits journalists working for the foreign news media. Friends say they even reported it to the president’s office. But the couple did not change their reporting habits — meeting and talking with a variety of people, including officials and diplomats inside and outside Iran.
“They had official accreditations and a feeling that they were protected by those who gave them the accreditations,” one of the friends said.
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Four months later, on July 22, 2014, Rezaian, his wife, the photographer and her husband were taken into custody. Only Rezaian remains incarcerated, a defendant in a closed-door trial in Tehran Revolutionary Court.
The van interrogation, in hindsight, appears to have been a sign of internal politics that would land Rezaian in deep trouble. The episode, which has not been widely reported, illuminates the hidden dangers that foreign journalists face in Iran, especially those like Rezaian, a native Californian who has U.S. and Iranian citizenship.
He has been confined longer than any other foreign journalist of Iranian descent.
That distinction previously belonged to Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian and former correspondent for Newsweek, who was held for 118 days and accused of spying after he filmed the killing of several people in 2009 postelection riots and later made a satirical appearance on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart.
While cultivating contacts with government sources is common journalistic practice in most countries, it tends to be viewed with suspicion in Iran, where foreign journalists are often assumed to be spies. And any inside connection to the office of President Hassan Rouhani, the moderate cleric who has many rivals in Iran’s opaque power structure, could put a reporter under intense scrutiny — especially one from the United States.
“Iran is not like other countries, where you can be friendly with officials,” said Ramin Mostaghim, an Iranian correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. “In the short term, having such contacts might pay off, but ultimately you can become entrapped in factional warfare or worse.”
Rezaian’s contacts, along with his gregarious personality, may help explain the crisis he is now confronting, according to Iran experts and friends and colleagues of Rezaian’s, who for security reasons spoke on the condition of anonymity.
They say Rouhani’s internal political adversaries, who see the president as too conciliatory toward the West, may have been responsible for Rezaian’s arrest. The adversaries might have seen an opportunity to embarrass Rouhani by imprisoning a U.S. journalist perceived as close to his administration. Rouhani’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said he knows Rezaian personally and has called him “a fair reporter.”
Robbie Stauder, a filmmaker and childhood friend from California who kept in touch with Rezaian, said, “He was always above the line in his reporting.”
“He knew exactly what to do and what not to do,” he said.
At the same time, Stauder said, “it’s possible maybe he got a little too comfortable.”
“He felt very comfortable,” he said. “He knew everybody.”
Rezaian, 39, is facing a 20-year prison term if convicted. He has denied all charges. The Post, which has said from the outset that Rezaian is innocent of any wrongdoing and has described his prosecution as an unjust farce, last week sought help from the United Nations to free him. The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, has called the case “a disgraceful violation of human rights.” Rezaian’s lawyer, Leila Ahsan, has said that no evidence has been presented that he committed crimes.
Regardless of the outcome, his circumstances today are not what Rezaian envisioned a few years ago, when everything seemed to have fallen into place for him and Salehi, 30, whom he met in Iran.
At their Tehran wedding in April 2013, attended by many friends, Rezaian and Salehi emerged from a mist generated by smoke machines, and they danced to Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night.”
Rezaian, who began reporting in Iran as a freelancer, had been hired by The Post in 2012 to cover the country, one of the top international stories. He enjoyed luxury vacations, a new car and a new apartment.
At first, his arrest was an embarrassment for Rouhani as the president’s negotiators engaged in direct talks with the United States over Iran’s disputed nuclear program. Many in Rouhani’s government said they expected Rezaian to be released within weeks, if not days.
Now, members of Rouhani’s government, including those who have led the nuclear talks, are virtually silent about Rezaian’s case. Iranian intelligence sources quoted by the conservative news media in Iran insist that he broke the law, without explaining how.
The son of an American mother and a father who is an Iranian expatriate, Rezaian was always an optimist, his friends say — an easygoing guy from Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
“There are a couple of dozen people out there who think he’s one of their best friends,” said Tom King, 39, a San Francisco business executive who has known Rezaian since childhood.
Stauder, who made a video showing how Rezaian’s family has been working to free him, described his friend as trusting and loyal.
“He understands deep humanity, and has an amazing way of relating, amazing ability to make friends and keep them,” Stauder said.
Before he was employed by The Post, Rezaian spent a decade in and out of Iran, selling rugs, promoting tourism and writing freelance articles for U.S. magazines. He would often spend months in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where he made many friends of Iranian descent.
In Iran, Rezaian became a well-known guest at embassy parties.
“I would introduce myself to diplomats or Iranian officials, and they would ask me if I knew Jason,” said a reporter working for a major European news outlet. “They would all meet with him. He was very well known here in town.”
Several people in Iran’s close community of foreign journalists started warning Rezaian to lower his profile.
“He was doing nothing wrong, but he was eager in establishing contacts,” said another reporter, who is also a close friend.
Some colleagues and friends said Rezaian felt a duty to broaden America’s understanding of Iran and a desire to present his father’s homeland positively. His last article for The Post was about Iranian baseball.
His dual nationality made him see the good in both countries and support any reconciliation between them, the friends said.
“For Jason, Iran was not just news, it was part of his personal story and emotions,” one friend said. “He saw himself as someone who could play a constructive role in bringing Iran and the U.S. closer.”
In 2008, without a full-time job in Iran, he completed an email form offering help as an Iran expert to Barack Obama’s election team, a friend said. He never deleted the email from his computer, and it became part of the accusations against him, the Iranian news media has reported.
After the van interrogation, Rezaian and Salehi may have raised more suspicion with a visit to the U.S. Consulate in Dubai, to arrange a marriage visa for her. That trip would have been noticed by intelligence officials in Iran, who scrutinize reporters’ travel patterns.
“Jason was open about having contacts with some American officials,” one of his friends said. “One time he even offered to share those with a diplomat friend of ours. Such things are normal everywhere, but suspicious in Iran. I was surprised he was so open about this.”
Rezaian and Salehi planned a cross-country road trip in the United States. Salehi would stay behind there, and Rezaian was scheduled to return to Iran after a month.
In the days leading up to their scheduled departure July 24, Salehi was followed on the streets for hours, friends say. Alarmed, the couple notified the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Coming home, they discovered that Salehi’s online accounts had been hacked. “Facebook, Gmail, everything,” a friend said. “They were not able to retrieve them.”
Now increasingly worried and eager to get away, the couple started packing. Rezaian finished his baseball article.
On July 22, their doorbell rang, and about a dozen unidentified men stormed in and took them away. The same day, the photographer friend and her husband were also arrested. The husband was released three days later, the photographer after a month, and Salehi after 72 days.
Salehi, who was ordered not to resume working and not to talk about the case as a condition of her release, still faces unspecified charges and a trial. Barred from attending her husband’s trial, she was seen outside the last hearing in tears.
The photographer, who is also still facing charges and who asked not to be identified, said: “I hope Jason comes out as soon as possible. This case has been a nightmare.”