Everything that’s been happening to Jason Rezaian and his family over the past 15 months feels familiar.
Jason Rezaian is a journalist. I’m also a journalist.
Rezaian is from Marin County, Calif. My home is right next door in Oakland, Calif.
I was arrested in 2009 along with my two companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — while hiking somewhere near Iran’s unmarked Western border. I was on vacation from my home in Damascus, Syria.
Rezaian was arrested on July 22, 2014. He is an Iranian-American who was working legally in Iran as the Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief.
He was vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence ever provided to the public to back that up. Guess what? My friends and I were also vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence…
My friends and I did nothing wrong. Jason Rezaian has done nothing wrong.
Yet, we were all punished: held incommunicado by the Iranian government in arbitrary, solitary detention — myself for over 13 months, Rezaian for over 15 months now, and my friends for over two years.
So, yes, these cases fit a pattern — not just the arrest, dubious charges and the blatant illegality of imprisonment. It’s also often the release that fits that pattern.
Last week Rezaian was found guilty in a closed court. It’s not clear for what or for how long — but we do know that Rezaian was sentenced.
After more than two years in prison Shane, now my husband, and our friend Josh were released just two weeks after being convicted and sentenced to eight years for espionage.
In 2009 Roxana Saberi, another wrongfully convicted Iranian-American journalist, was held for over three months, given an eight-year sentence for espionage, then released less than a month later.
So the pattern goes: illegal arrest, allegations of espionage, lengthy, high-profile imprisonment, show trial, conviction, then “humanitarian” release.
Is the Iranian government gearing up for Rezaian’s release?
The fact that the trial is nothing but political theater is good for Rezaian. The sentence itself means nothing. Yet there are many variables standing between him and his freedom.
For the Iranian government, imprisoning Americans provides an important kind of security, like money in the bank — a bargaining chip it can use as leverage or to assert pressure in any number of scenarios.
When a hostage has been held too long, he or she decreases in value. When the pressure on and condemnation of the Iranian government reaches a critical point, the hostages become more trouble than they are worth. That’s how people get released.
For the Iranian government, the timing of a release of a political hostage is everything. I was released just days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). My release was timed to soften the president’s image in light of the rampant human rights condemnations against him. Shane and Josh were released a year later, again, right before the UNGA and right after Ramadan.
But the UNGA is over. Ramadan is over.
Even more importantly, a historic nuclear deal has completely changed the equation — a deal the Iranian government never would have signed on to if it wasn’t ready for the decades-long stalemate between our governments to end.
Not even Congress or hardliners in Iran have been able to kill this deal.
So why is the Iranian government still holding Rezaian?
I feel certain that the nuclear deal bodes well for the four Americans held unjustly in Iran. I also think it creates less incentive for the Iranian government to use hostage-taking as a tactic in the future.
Yet the fact that Rezaian is still sitting in a jail cell reminds me that — though huge leaps have been made towards ending decades of animosity between our countries — this long, terrible chapter of U.S.-Iranian relations has not ended.
There are interests inside Iran that will do anything to stop this normalization from happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised if those same forces are the ones blocking Rezaian’s release.
While I was being held hostage I felt certain that my freedom — if and when it came — would be calibrated precisely in response to the temperature of unfolding U.S.-Iranian relations. My interrogators told me as much. The Omani negotiators that worked diligently on our case told me as much.
In 2013, this was confirmed publicly when the Associated Press reported that it was a series of secret talks between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials — facilitated and hosted by the Sultan of Oman — that paved the road for the historic agreement over Iran’s nuclear program.
“Ironically,” said the AP report, “efforts to win the release of the three American hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.”
October 18 was “Adoption Day,” the day that both sides begin to fulfill their obligations under the nuclear deal.
According to the deal, Iran has to act first: showing good faith by removing centrifuges, reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, destroying the core of the Arak reactor and expanding inspector access — all of which it hopes to do by December 2015.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government believes implementing these changes could take much longer. Under terms of the deal, Iran will not experience any sanction relief until “Implementation Day,” when signatories are satisfied that Iran has fulfilled its obligations.
It may not be until spring of 2016 before the Iranian people begin to see some economic benefit.
With parliamentary elections in February, President Hassan Rouhani can’t afford to wait that long. He therefore has every incentive to cooperate in every way possible in order to hasten the arrival of “Implementation Day” — including softening Iran’s image on human rights.
Rezaian, the most high-profile prisoner of the moment, is the obvious choice for a humanitarian release.
The question boils down to this: Does Rouhani have enough power to get this done? Or are his hands tied?
Ultimately, it’s Iran’s Supreme Leader who makes the decision for a hostage to be released. Ayatollah Khamenei is probably hearing from the hardliners that Iran should continue to hold Rezaian until the United States and world powers fulfill their end of the deal by lifting sanctions.
It’s a perverse, cynical equation that has nothing to do with the suffering of an innocent man and his family.
Reading his writing, Rezaian seems like the kind of person who will come out of prison with compassionate, sensible things to say that we could all benefit from hearing.
It really is time to close this chapter on U.S.-Iranian relations; the quicker this deal is implemented, the sooner sanctions are lifted, the better.
I hope Rezaian’s case is the last to fit this hateful “pattern.”
I hope this is the end of an era.
I don’t know what moment the Iranian government will choose to free Jason Rezaian, but there could be no better moment than now.