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How an American journalist survived 18 months in an Iranian prison

Journalist Jason Rezaian was the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran until 2014, when he and his wife, Yeganeh, were arrested by Iranian authorities. She was released after three months, while Jason was held for another 15. He describes the harrowing experience in his memoir, “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison,” and talks to Judy Woodruff about why he believes he was targeted.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to my conversation with the journalists Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian.

    Jason Rezaian this week published a memoir that recounts his 18 months in an Iranian prison. It's titled "Prisoner."

    The airy kitchen of their Washington home is now quiet comfort for Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian, three years after Jason's release from an Iranian prison, following 544 days in captivity.

    Rezaian was The Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief when, in July 2014, he and Yeganeh were arrested. They were newlyweds, both holding official journalist's permits, reauthorized the very day they were detained.

    You were just about as unlikely a political prisoner as I can think that. Why do you think they chose you?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison": I think they chose me because I was the best available option, an American citizen working for a major American media organization, one of the few based in Iran, few media organizations, the only American, and a duel Iranian national.

    So they could have their cake and eat it too, you know, treat me as an Iranian citizen, put me through the rigmarole of a judicial process there, and at the same time try and extract concessions from the United States.

    And I was doing my job. And like any journalist, I had contacts in the U.S. government, the Iranian government. In the Iranian construction of this case against me, the idea was that, by doing all of this work and making all of this information gathered on the ground in Iran publicly available to the United States in the Washington Post newspaper, this is a threat to our national security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's two different worlds. I mean, they had one understanding of what you were doing, and it was completely different from what was going on.

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I think they understood exactly what I was doing. How they interpreted how that could hurt them was their own sort of crazy conclusion-jumping.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Of course, it all took place during the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal. Did you feel you were a pawn in all this?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I mean, I don't like the term pawn, and I don't think anybody would.

    But I do believe that I was taken by the forces in the Iranian regime that captured us to cause problems for those nuclear negotiations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Rezaians were held at Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Yeganeh was released after three months. Jason would remain imprisoned for another 15 months.

    You write so vividly about how terrible it was. Of course, you said you were not tortured, but you were treated horribly. I mean, you were left in a room with a light on all the time. You were pulled in for daily, constant interrogations.

    How did you get through it?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    Well, a year-and-a-half is a long time. And when you are surrounded by the same people, you see the best and the worst that they're capable of in that period of time.

    I believe, as time went on, that I built a rapport with some of my interrogators and captors, that they let their guards down a little bit. I thought in the moment, you know, better to be as myself as possible, in the hopes that I might be able to get a slightly better situation, because you were just trying to survive.

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    I think I didn't want to be released without Jason. I was resisting to leave the Evin prison because I wanted to make sure, if we do, we do leave it together.

    It wasn't a sweet, happy moment for me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did you deal with the worst of this, in terms of — I mean, were there times when you thought he wasn't going to come home?

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    I was told many, many times that we won't ever be together, or he will be executed, or at least he will be in prison for 10 years.

    I contemplated suicide. I just — interestingly, one day, I went to visit him, and I was crying. And I said — I think it was seven months through his imprisonment.

    And I said: "Jason, I can't do this anymore." And we're meeting behind these windows and talking through phones. And he said: "We came this far. We can go a little bit longer."

    And he told me: "As soon as we are released, we're going to go to America. I'm going to take you to America. And you're going to be an Ameri-can. So, there's no can't. American can do."

    So, I mean, I always remember his words. It was just funny to me how he had energy to play with words to make me happy. So, I think those little kind of things that give you hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    When they let you know you were going to be released, I don't know how — I don't think they gave you very much advance notice.

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    No.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But how did you feel?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I had no idea about the negotiations that were going on, although my captors talked about it at certain times: You know, there's going to be a prisoner swap.

    I was incredibly skeptical, angry. It was — if you remember, it was during that period of time when they started admitting, you know, we know you didn't do anything wrong, you know, but we needed — we needed something. We needed something to work with.

    It was such a huge relief to get on that plane and lift off and leave Iranian airspace, but it was also enormous loss for both of us. So, you know, I'm still, you know, riddled with mixed emotions about the whole thing.

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    Many people go through this harrowing experiences, and they never come back as who they were.

    Also, after he was released, and we finally came to the United States, we were going through two different experiences. For him, it's coming back home. For me, it's leaving home maybe forever.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can you talk about your feelings about your country, about the people of your country?

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    Basically, I'm very proud of being Iranian. I love my country. I love my land. I love my people. I miss my friends. I just miss everything about it.

    But, at the same time, I know I most likely won't be able to go back anytime soon.

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I mean, I think about the people that we left behind, friends and family, all the time.

    I think that's the biggest heartbreak of this whole experience, especially for Yegi not being able to see her family, and, you know, by no fault of our own. That's the part of this that is so heartbreaking.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, if you each could deliver a message to the leaders of the United States and Iran, what would you say?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I would say, in both cases, do a better job of trying to figure out what's making the other one tick, because, on both sides, they're off-base.

    The leaders of Iran should be treating their people much better. Open the doors. Let people out of prison. Let people flourish. Let them live their lives.

  • Yeganeh Rezaian:

    Both sides shouldn't take normal people hostage. I mean, play your politics. Put people aside.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jason Rezaian, how do you now think about your role as a journalist? I mean, do you think of yourself as having a particular mission connected to what happened to you? How do you think about your future?

  • Jason Rezaian:

    I just went back to work about a year ago. And the role that I'm in has evolved over that time.

    I'm on the opinion side now. There's a possibility for me to use the platforms available to me to talk about issues relating to Iran, and specifically foreign nationals being held there, because I know that story as well as anybody, but also about why it's important to protect press freedoms here at home and around the world.

    So I'm going to be doing that. As long as I have the opportunity to, as long as I have platforms to do that, I'm not going to stop doing that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, amid that mission, Jason admits the lasting, bone-deep recollection of those 544 days changed him profoundly.

  • Jason Rezaian:

    It still affects me in everything that I do.

    I was a very carefree person that traveled the world with a backpack and a one-way ticket for many years. There's none of that anymore. I need to know exactly where I'm going, how I'm getting there, who's going to be there waiting for me, and how I'm coming home. I'm a different person.

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