Hashtags and Backchannels | Episode 5 | Crooked Media
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October 05, 2021
544 Days
Hashtags and Backchannels | Episode 5
10 Episodes

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In This Episode

The public effort to get Jason out gains new life with #FreeJason and some famous supporters, including Muhammad Ali and Anthony Bourdain. Meanwhile, the U.S. government pivots to a secret backchannel to negotiate his release. Featuring interviews with Obama Administration officials John Kerry, Brett McGurk, Ben Rhodes and Wendy Sherman.

 

Transcript

 

Jason Rezaian: Previously on 544 Days:

 

John Kerry: How do we prove we’re gonna be trying to move in the same direction? We want to know that Jason’s OK. His mother needs to talk to him.

 

Ali Rezaian: She’s like, well, I want to go to Tehran. And I said, I really don’t think that’s a great idea.

 

Mary Rezaian: So I figured out OK, black shirts, masks—they must be part of the Revolutionary Guard.

 

Jason Rezaian: Christmas isn’t a holiday in Iran, but Muslims consider Jesus to be one of the prophets. And it’s not like they live on another planet, so they know about Christmas and its significance in much of the world. I always tried to make Christmas in Tehran as special as possible. Yegi was on board with that, because like most Iranians, she loves a good celebration. That first year we were married, we hosted a big feast. Everyone and their mother wanted to come. Literally. We sourced the turkey that was so huge it didn’t fit in our oven. So we cooked it with the door half open, and miraculously it came out perfect. We baked Christmas cookies, and there was at least one present under our tiny tree for everyone who came. It didn’t snow that year, but it was magical. And that would turn out to be the only Christmas feast we ever hosted in Tehran. The next Christmas, 2014, I was in Evin prison. Around 11 a.m., a guard came to my cell and told me to come with them. I didn’t know what to expect. These guys love symbolism, but a surprise on Christmas could just as easily be good news or very bad news. The guard led me into the visitation room. There, to my surprise, I saw my mom, for the first time in six months

 

Mary Rezaian: And I saw you were wearing Dad’s leisure outfit, which fit you, which indicated that you had lost quite a fair amount of weight.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: I was wearing my dad’s old tracksuit, which Yegi had brought me.

 

Mary Rezaian: When I saw you looking so thin, I was really startled. It was an indication of the stress you were living with. And that wasn’t, that wasn’t good to see.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: I hadn’t been prepared mentally to see my mother after all those months. If I’d known she was coming, I would have tried to put on a brave face. Or at least brushed my teeth.

 

Mary Rezaian: And, you know, we hugged and we sat together. I think I held your hand throughout this meeting. I felt your hands were really cold. You were not really yourself, you know, in terms of the warm, gregarious person that I know. And I could see that this experience had been a terrible weight that you were carrying around and that it was having some changes on your personality.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was a relief to see my mom after so many months .we hugged, but there wasn’t a lot of crying. Mostly, I felt frustrated. I’d hope that I would be free by Christmas. I remember telling my mom to work harder to get me out. Then they led me away. Back to my cell.

 

Mary Rezaian: Well, at that point, we didn’t know when we would be able to see one another again, but I’m sure I promised you that I would do everything that I could on the outside.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Now that Christmas had passed. I wanted to be out by the next milestone, my birthday, which is the Ides of March. But was my mom going to be up to that challenge? If there was any chance of me getting out, it was going to take some serious campaigning to turn up the heat on officials in Iran and the US, because as much as I thought my fate was tied to the nuclear talks, the negotiations that really mattered were only just beginning. I’m Jason Rezaian, and this is 544 Days. Episode 5: Pressure mounts to get me out. On one side, the megaphone of public support. On another, secret talks and cloak and dagger diplomacy.

 

Christmas came and went. So did New Year’s. I’d been in prison for 163 days, more than five months. Back in the US, my brother Ali had dropped everything to work on my case, but he hadn’t gotten very far yet. Part of his strategy was to just show up. If he got an invitation to any event where you could talk about my case, he went. In February 2015, Ali traveled to D.C. for an event at the National Press Club. The club started in 1908 as a place for old timey D.C. reporters to drink and play poker. These days, it spends more time on advocacy for press freedom. A lot of that evolution has to do with Bill McCarren, the executive director. He told me he remembered that event with Ali. The club was hosting it for the group Reporters Without Borders.

 

Bill McCarren: And they were talking about their press freedom index. And they were going through why Mozambique had moved up two places and why Azerbaijan had moved down four places. And I noticed that on the panel was Ali Rezaian. And I thought, OK, that’s interesting. So the event kind of went on and I looked around the audience and I noticed that sitting in the second row was Marty Baron of The Washington Post. He was attending the event. He was listening. And he wasn’t speaking. That was an interesting moment for me. I was feeling something, it wasn’t anger. And I was listening to this and thinking this is just not, this is not the best we can do.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Marty Baron was the Executive Editor of The Washington Post at the time, and Bill thought he should be up there publicly agitating for my release. Bill didn’t know they were working behind the scenes and meeting at the White House to try and get me out of prison. And he didn’t like seeing Ali sitting on a panel about press freedom around the world, instead of just focusing on my case.

 

Bill McCarren: He looked sad. He was looking down. I mean, he was sad. I know he was. So my thought was this this poor guy. I wanted to do whatever we could to change his life.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: So after the event was over, Bill went up to Ali to introduce himself.

 

Bill McCarren: I didn’t know that then, but that was a consequential event for me, to meet Ali Rezaian. And what happened was Ali actually ended up changing my life.

 

Ali Rezaian: So we go up to the office up there upstairs and we start talking. And I just remember, it was very, very important because they said, you know, we want to do everything we can and make all of our contacts, everything that we can do to help you get Jason out.

 

Bill McCarren: Jason was asking, get me out by my birthday. And so I just said, when is his birthday?

 

Ali Rezaian: That’s what made me think this is a long-term thing. We need to start planning things a month in advance or two months in advance.

 

Bill McCarren: Wanted to do a blitz, as much media as we could for Jason’s birthday.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: A month later to mark my birthday, Bill invited Ali and my editor, Doug Jehl, to use the TV studio at the National Press Club.

 

Ali Rezaian: You know they said we want to do a satellite road show for you. And I’m like, I don’t know what the hell that is but that sounds great as long as I don’t have to go to a satellite.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: On a satellite tour, you’re sitting in one studio, basically doing dozens of interviews in a row with local TV stations all over the country.

 

Ali Rezaian: This is a real TV studio. They hired a producer, they hired makeup, they catered it so they brought in sandwiches. There was always Diet Coke for me and Doug to keep on going.

 

Doug Jehl: [laughing] That’s one thing your brother and I share, certainly an affection for Diet Coke.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Doug, just popping in to put a fine point on it. I firmly believe that Doug and Ali shared Diet Coke habit is what kept them going through those long months of struggle. The IRGC may have had a grip on my fate, but they were no match for caffeine and aspartame.

 

Ali Rezaian: So we go down there, I don’t know, 6 o’clock in the morning or something, and I don’t know, maybe have ten interviews planned. And, you know, as things went along, they just kept on getting calls from producers.

 

Bill McCarren: There was just one after another, after another, after another, after another, after another.

 

[reporter] What do you understand about the latest condition of your brother? And tell us about your effort to get him home.

 

[clips of Ali Rezaian] You know, right now we know that Jason is still very isolated. His mental condition, I think, is worsening . . . he told her that he was very depressed at the situation, he was disappointed that the Iranians aren’t following the rules and the laws that they . . .  so we’ve been working for the last few months to get Jason a lawyer . . . he’s been held for longer than any other Western journalist in history, he isn’t being protected by the Iranians, by the laws . . .

 

[reporter] Do you know why he was jailed?

 

[clip of Ali Rezaian] I think that’s one of the biggest mysteries here. And the Iranians have done a very good job of not giving us any information.

 

Bill McCarren: And I think they did 22 interviews starting at six o’clock.

 

Ali Rezaian: And so, you know, we were there until, you know, 5:30, 6 o’clock at night, doing interviews all day long.

 

Bill McCarren: Definitely this is something Ali had never done before. Somewhere through that process, somewhere between Sacramento station and a Tampa station, I realized that Ali is very good at this. Iran was an abstraction for many of them, and Rezaian didn’t sound like the guy next door, which Jason was in so many ways. And so this is what Ali was helping to defeat with every repetition, every station. And this is where Ali had a huge, huge talent. You need to be able to make an audience feel like you’re talking about a person, because that’s how they can imagine their brother, right, is being held. And it takes that, it takes that to put action into people.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: After this marathon, Ali would go on to do so many TV interviews he lost count.

 

Bill McCarren: So in the end, we would jokingly call Ali the anchorman.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Maybe he was so good at it because he had complete and total clarity about his mission.

 

Ali Rezaian: There was one goal. I mean, I just that was made it really kind of easy. If you, if you step back and say, I don’t have to pay attention to any of this other stuff. Right? There’s one thing that’s going on here.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: By all that other stuff. Ali is mostly talking about the nuclear negotiations and the way my case was all tangled up with that. Ali knew I would never be as important to the Obama administration as its quest for a deal. And the deal was not a sure thing.

 

Ali Rezaian: I mean, it could have not happened, right? The deal could have not happened. So again, if it’s like, well, is there going to be a deal and it can’t be a deal unless Jason gets out, well if the whole thing falls apart then, then Jason doesn’t get out.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And so, Ali, a guy who treasures his privacy, became the anchorman. For a year and a half, he bounced between TV studios, Capitol Hill and the UN. All to make sure that no one could forget me. Those TV interviews weren’t the only thing the National Press Club organized for my birthday. Bill was able to get a statement calling for my release from a celebrity the Iranians couldn’t just discount as another representative of the Great Satan.

 

Bill McCarren: Muhammad Ali, the biggest, baddest guy on the planet, is calling for mercy for Jason. This strong man not afraid to ask for mercy.

 

Ali Rezaian: And arguably, in some ways, the definitive American hero. His image in this country changed over time. But in a country like Iran he’s, he’s a Muslim hero.

 

Bill McCarren: Yeah.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was a short written statement. And in it, Muhammad Ali wrote, “Jason is a man of peace and great faith, a man whose dedication and respect for the Iranian people is evident in his work.” After that statement, several of the guards I interacted with mentioned that they’d heard about it, and they actually started treating me better. For my mom, the champ’s statement was a huge relief. It felt like a powerful validation of my innocence.

 

Mary Rezaian: I burst into tears because I knew that in the Islamic world, Muhammad Ali was held in very, very high regard. And that it would mean something to the people who were holding you, that this person was coming out asking for your release.

 

Jason Rezaian: I remember saying to you, so I’ve got the two most prominent American Muslims on my side. And you said Muhammad Ali and Congressman Keith Ellison, who apparently also had made a statement for me. And I said, no, no, no, Muhammad Ali and Obama. [laughs].

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: There was another famous voice speaking out for Yegi and me, someone I will always feel indebted to: Anthony Bourdain. I told you in Episode 1 about how he interviewed us over a long lunch in Tehran.

 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain, from the show] You like it, you happy here?

 

[clip of Jason, responding] Look, I, I’m at a point now after five years . . .

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was for his show, Parts Unknown, about food and culture. He’d been trying to get to Iran for years.

 

[clip of Jason, responding] I love it and I hate it, you know. But it’s home. It’s become home.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: We were so optimistic, and it felt like Bourdain was getting to see why. We were showing him and the world what a welcoming place Iran can be. And then just weeks later, we were arrested. A few years ago, Bourdain and I talked about that trip:

 

Anthony Bourdain: Yeah, I was surprised that even clerics in the street would say, where are you from? And we’d say America and they’d smile and say, welcome. I was surprised at how open people were with us behind closed doors, how cynical and funny and realistic about their situation.

 

Jason: You had come out and said this is the most hospitable place you’ve ever—

 

Anthony Bourdain: I’d come out very hopeful.

 

Jason: Yeah.

 

Anthony Bourdain: And maybe allowed myself the space to feel, to be willfully naïve. I had such a positive experience in Iran that I was surprised and terribly disappointed and heartbroken and worried.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: When we were arrested, Bourdain stepped up for us.

 

[clip of Anderson Cooper] In Iran, you interviewed these two people. You said they were great and that there’s no proof they did anything wrong.

 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] There was just not a hint of anything that could cause anyone in any government to find fault, one would think. So—

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: He did TV interviews, tweeted, wrote an Op-Ed.

 

Anthony Bourdain: We knew right away—obviously everyone knew right away—that whatever charges they were bringing against you were likely to be bullshit and were, in fact, going to be bullshit, and in fact ended up being bullshit.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: While I was in Evin, I thought a lot about that interview we’d done for Tony’s TV show.

 

Jason: I want to say, though, that sitting there in the prison, not knowing what was going to happen, I was looking to the future airing of this, whatever we said in that, as a lifeline. If we didn’t have that, you would have had all of these sort of stories of: we asked his neighbor and they said he was a quiet man type of thing.

 

Anthony Bourdain: Yes, right. Well, it put a face on you and Yegi.

 

Jason: It put a face, and it just, it changed the whole equation, I think, I believe.

 

Anthony Bourdain: And I’m very grateful, if that’s the case.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: When the Iran episode of Parts Unknown aired I’d been locked up for more than three months. Bourdain still included the video of us looking so carefree. But then he explained that I’d been thrown in prison. Not long after I got to talk all this through with him, Anthony Bourdain took his own life, and Yegi and I lost a friend who did more for us than we ever could have expected. Having advocates like Anthony Bourdain and Muhammad Ali was a big deal. It really helped with one of the main goals, to get the name Jason Rezaian out as widely as possible. At the Press Club, this was one of Bill McCarren strategies.

 

Bill McCarren: You need to get the name out there because in all these cases, that jailer wants you to forget the name. If you forget the name, if you don’t hear the name, then you don’t think about the person.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is around the time that hashtag Free Jason took off. Using the hashtag on social media helped Ali pull together hundreds of thousands of signatures for a petition calling for my release. That drove even more coverage of my case.

 

Bill McCarren: First time I went to the post, I sat in on the morning meeting and I talked about it and I mentioned that we’re doing this hashtag Free Jason thing, and we’ve got all these people that have signed this petition. And I think it was Marty who said, well, that sounds like news. Why don’t we write something about that? There has to be something new in order for there to be news. And that was news. I said, Oh, wow, this is a way that we can generate some people paying attention if they otherwise wouldn’t.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: In April of 2015, there was another big opportunity to generate attention: the White House Correspondents Dinner. Everyone who watches politics and the media knows about what they call “nerd prom.” They’d definitely lots of coverage on TV and social media. So The Post had a thousand Free Jason pins made up before the dinner, and they handed them out to everyone they could. They figured, hey, at least the words Free Jason would be in every picture from the dinner and the after parties. But they didn’t count on the biggest PR bump.

 

[clip of President Obama] We remember the journalists unjustly imprisoned around the world, including our own Jason Rezaian.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s not how my name is pronounced.

 

[clip of President Obama] For nine months, Jason has been in prison in Tehran for nothing more than writing about the hopes and the fears of the Iranian people, carrying their stories to the readers of The Washington Post in an effort to bridge our common humanity. Jason’s brother, Ali, is here tonight, and I have told him personally, we will not rest until we bring him home to his family, safe and sound.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: There was a first time Obama said my name in a public forum . . . or at least tried to. And it meant that the Free Jason campaign was gaining traction. If my captors hoped that my name would be forgotten, they had seriously miscalculated. Coming up, besides the public effort to free me, a lot was happening behind closed doors. And that means it’s time to meet one of my least favorite diplomats in the whole wide world:

 

Javad Zarif: Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason, is accused of a very serious offense.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s coming up right after this break.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: In my new prison cell there wasn’t much to do except watch TV. So my cellmate Mirsani and I watched a lot of TV. We only got Iran’s state-run channels, and during the nuclear talks, they always covered Iranian envoys whenever they spoke in public, especially when they were abroad. So one day in February of 2015, I caught an interview with Javad Zarif:

 

[clip of Javad Zarif] He is accused of a very serious offense.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: He was Iran’s Foreign Minister and led Iran’s team of nuclear negotiators.

 

[Javad Zarif] Iran is not threatening anybody. We’re not threatening to use force. We’re not saying all options are on the table. I hope . . .

 

Ali Rezaian: He was talking to The Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Ignatius was asking Zarif about relations between the US and Iran, and about the nuclear deal. But then at the very end, there was a surprise.

 

[clip of David Ignatius] My colleague and personal friend, Jason Rezaian, who’s our correspondent in Tehran, has been imprisoned since last July. The charges have never been made clear. And it would be wrong of me not to use this public forum to say to the Iranian foreign minister that we dearly hope, and I speak for all journalists I think around the world, for his prompt release.

 

[clip of Javad Zarif] So you have the last word. But I believe Jason Rezaian has been charged. I’ve tried my best to help him in a humanitarian way. I hope that he will be cleared of the charges in a court of law, and that would be a good day for me.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: This was such bullshit. But hearing Ignatius made me feel stronger. David Ignatius, one of the Post’s biggest names, was challenging the foreign minister of Iran in public to release me. That made me feel like I was going to be able to live through this, whatever this was. I got to tell David that when I talked with him for this podcast.

 

David Ignatius: Nothing makes me happier than thinking that in prison, in your time of worry, here was something on the TV that said, Hey, buddy, we love you, you know, at the Post and we’re going to keep raising this every chance we get, in every forum that we appear in.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It’s true. David kept at it. A couple of months later, he did another onstage interview with the same guy, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif. This time at NYU. And again, I caught it on TV.

 

[clip of Javad Zarif] Unfortunately, your friend and my friend, Jason is accused of a very serious offense. And I hope that he’s cleared in a court, but he will have to face a court. He’s an Iranian citizen. It is unfortunate that some overzealous low-level operative tried to take advantage of him. And I don’t go into further detail because that’s a pending case before the court.

 

David Ignatius: That was a nasty piece of work, to suggest in this elliptical way, “I can’t share the details with you, dear friends,” but that there was some substance to the allegation, that unfortunately some low-level person had said something and it was, implying that that that there was a real spy case here. And I remember just just thinking, it was a tricky business that wants to speak of my friend Jason and to, in effect, push you deeper into the mess you’re were in.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yeah, so meet the smooth-talking Javad Zarif. He recently lost his job after an ultraconservative cleric won the presidential election this past June. But Zarif spent almost a decade as foreign minister, and he was often the only guy American leaders and journalists could talk with publicly. These two interviews helped focus my rage. Zarif is a master at speaking from both sides—you know what, all sides of his mouth. Zarif was invited to take part in this podcast. We never got a response. If you’re wondering why Iran’s foreign minister can’t just snap his fingers and set me free, don’t forget how complicated Iranian politics can be. Zarif is really good at navigating those politics, and fucking with Americans at the same time.

 

Wendy Sherman: He knows the United States, his English is flawless.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Wendy Sherman, who we heard in the previous episode, the former Under Secretary of State and the lead negotiator in the nuclear talks.

 

Wendy Sherman: He is incredibly experienced and savvy.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Zarif comes from a rich family in Tehran, and he went to the United States for both his BA and his Ph.D. Wendy Sherman spent so much time with them during the nuclear talks, she got to know all his favorite negotiating tricks.

 

Wendy Sherman: I say this with an uncanny kind of respect: he’s a terrific drama queen. He knows when to uh, put on a scene.

 

Jon Finer: One minute he could be extremely sort of low key, almost to the point of seeming like morose.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Jon Finer, who was John Kerry’s chief of staff.

 

Jon Finer: And the next minute, you know, kind of high drama and anger and histrionics and pounding the table and shouting. Secretary Kerry’s a very even-keeled person in the face of sort of high-stakes, high-pressure negotiations. And the sort of stylistic opposite of that was Javad Zarif.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: When Zarif appears on TV or radio, you don’t see all the volcanic emotions. When he talked about me, he always pretended like we were buddies, and that he was trying really hard to get me out. Here he is on NPR a few months after I was arrested:

 

[clip of Javad Zarif] I know Jason personally, as a reporter he has worked with me, and I know him to be a fair reporter. So I had hoped all along that his detention would be short, and I continue to try to make it shorter than longer. But the point that needs to be made is that an Iranian citizen is being held by Iranian authorities on suspicions dealing with Iranian law. And nobody is waterboarding him.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It’s tempting to think you can believe him, that he’s one of the good guys.

 

John Kerry: But no. He’s a regime representative. He believes in this regime. He’s uh, he’s ardently Iranian and nationalist. And he’s a, he’s a tough interlocutor. You have to respect that.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s former Secretary of State John Kerry. You can hear him banging his desk, just talking about negotiating with Zarif. Kerry spent hours and hours with Zarif during the course of the nuclear talks. One of the most famous images of the two of them comes from a walk they took around Geneva in January of 2015, on a break from the negotiations.

 

John Kerry: We talked. We talked very seriously, even as we were walking across the bridge and around the block a little bit in Geneva. It proved to be a little more of a show than either of us had anticipated. I thought we were going to be able to get away with a little bit of a quiet walk, two guys talking, getting away from the contrived atmospherics of a room which is sort of locked into it. And we chatted about a couple of the hurdles that we faced and things we have to get over. I thought it was a worthwhile conversation. I think he did. And I think he probably got more trouble for it than I did.

 

Jon Finer: What was most interesting to me about that was how kind of dangerous that seemed politically to both of them at that time.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is John Finer again.

 

Jon Finer: It was not helpful at all, and probably in some ways much more personally dangerous for Javad Zarif to be seen sort of in a more casual setting with John Kerry, who was the secretary of state, who was overseeing at that point the most extensive sanctions program against a country that the world had, had ever seen.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: This moment showed just how fraught the US-Iran relationship was when I was taken hostage. I mean, these guys couldn’t even take a casual stroll together. Zarif was risking pissing off the guys who had me, and those guys would do anything to keep Iran’s nuclear program off the table.

 

John Kerry: There was a big division within the government of Iran. There were those who were absolutely opposed to any negotiations at all with the so-called Great Satan.

 

Wendy Sherman: The people that I call the hard hard-liners in Iran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, did not want a joint comprehensive plan of action, and they wanted to do everything they could to thwart the negotiations. I think that Zarif had very limited authority to do anything.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: About my case, she means.

 

Wendy Sherman: It wasn’t the foreign ministry that took you. It wasn’t the foreign ministry who could get you released.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: So who the fuck could get me released? Someone was going to have to talk with the guys who wanted to scuttle the nuclear deal, the IRGC. And this is where we get to the cloak and dagger stuff.

 

Brett McGurk: Yeah. So I’ll put you kind of into my shoes on this.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Brett McGurk worked in the State Department under George W. Bush, Obama and Trump. He’s now serving on Biden’s National Security Council. And in the summer of 2014, he was President Obama’s envoy in the fight against ISIS.

 

Brett McGurk: So I spent almost the entire summer in Iraq in a just incredibly intense environment. I mean, it’s a 24-day because the way the time works, it’s eight hours ahead out there. So you’re dealing with stuff on the ground and then you’re in meetings with Washington late at night. And that included regular meetings with President Obama on down. When I finally came home for a period, I remember saying to my wife, Gina, when I got to see her again, that it looks like over the next year or so I’m hardly going to be home.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And he was about to get even busier. Brett McGurk has a really important role to play in my story, so I want you to be able to picture him. I got a perfect description from Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s top foreign policy advisers.

 

Ben Rhodes: So Brett McGurk could have walked onto the set of Mad Men and not changed his clothes and just been another guy in the room. You know, the square jaw, the neatly parted hair. And in a way, he was a kind of throwback diplomat, you know, to some bygone era of Americans who become Arabists. They can walk into rooms in Iraq with tribal leaders or Shia clerics and just talk to them and make a connection.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: So, back to the summer of 2014. Brett was already a busy guy when he got an unexpected request.

 

Brett McGurk: So I was surprised when Wendy Sherman pulled me to the side and said, hey, Brett, we’ve had these talks about American prisoners through the nuclear process. I said, yeah. And she said, we’re going to open a new channel with the Iranians that we think actually kind of hold the prison keys, you know, not the smooth English-speaking Zarifs and those guys from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but a different kettle of fish on the Iranian side. And I think my initial reaction in my own head was, well, good luck with that. And then she said, we really want you to lead this process. Like that could be someone’s full time job. So I really kind of pushed back politely and said, Wendy, there’s got to be someone else for this job. And then Secretary Kerry kind of pulled me aside as well around the same time and really asked me to take it on. So I agreed to do it.

 

Jason Rezaian: You, you said at the beginning that you told Gina that you didn’t think that you’d be around much for the next year or so. How did she respond to the idea that you had this whole new set of responsibilities on top of it?

 

Brett McGurk: I don’t even think I told her about the early days of that assignment because it was just so sensitive.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And so the Obama administration launched a risky strategy. While Sherman and Kerry kept negotiating the nuclear deal with Zarif, Brett would lead a secret, parallel track. His job was to convince the IRGC to let me go, along with other Americans Iran was holding.

 

Brett McGurk: To really get hard things done, it has to be done outside of the glare of the media and Congress and all that. I mean, it just would be almost impossible. So it was designed to be secret.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: In the fall of 2014, Brett started by pulling together a team from the intelligence agencies, Justice and State Departments, to come up with a plan for the talks.

 

Brett McGurk: So we had prepared for a couple of months before we sat down for the first time about what are we likely to hear? How are we going to respond?

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Because the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic ties with Iran, the meeting had to be arranged by the Swiss. And when I say this had to be secret, I really mean it.

 

Brett McGurk: The Swiss set it up, and they’re very good at this stuff. So, you know, we have assumed names. I think somewhere a guy named Pierre du Pont has like massive Intercontinental Hotel points, right? Because that, we’re all under assumed names.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It’s a pretty good fake name. McGurk looks like he could be a Pierre du Pont.

 

Brett McGurk: Whether or not that was necessary honestly, I don’t know. But that’s how, that’s how the Swiss do it.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: McGurk had a general philosophy of negotiations, no matter who he was talking to.

 

Brett McGurk: Whether you’re negotiating with your friends or your adversaries, generally on your first session, you want to just kind of try to draw them out and get them talking, get the other side of the table talking. Because that’s how you gain intelligence and you kind of can set the contours for what might be possible.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: But when the first meeting began in December 2014, Brett could tell that this approach would be difficult.

 

Brett McGurk: So they walk in and there’s about six of them. My counterpart is a very senior intelligence official. You could just tell there was kind of a good cop, bad cop on their own side. So, you know, he had one guy sitting to his right that never opened his mouth. And so after kind of our first day, I said to my, the guy from our intel community who’s an expert on Iran, I said, hey, who the, who is this guy? And I just remember, he said, you know, Brett, if you’re ever, if you ever find yourself in an empty basement somewhere strapped to a chair with a light bulb over your head, you don’t want to see that guy walk in the room.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: McGurk is a seasoned diplomat, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, sometimes strong ones, when he goes into a discussion with people whose ideas are antithetical to his.

 

Brett McGurk: You’re representing the United States of America, right? And so you’re carrying, your honor, your flag, and honestly, a lot of anger. You know, I didn’t like these guys. And so you go into it with that. And honestly, they come to it with that, too. I mean, they were ready to just go on and on about everything from Mossadeq to the Iran-Iraq war to our support to Saddam to the Iran air shoot down that killed 299 and 66 children—they go through the whole thing, right? I have it kind of memorized. OK, you want to play that game? We go through our whole litany of stuff, from the most recent Iraq war, to Beirut and Hezbollah, to the hostages and everything.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: These lists are the long, well-rehearsed beef on both sides. Not the best small talk to break the ice.

 

Brett McGurk: And I could also tell the dynamic that my counterpart, their head of delegation, was posturing. So I kind of realized pretty soon, I got to get this guy alone and just kind of say, hey, my secretary, my president asked me to come do this, if there’s no way to have a discussion, you know I can go home. I got other things to do. So I did that about halfway through the first day, and we took a break. And that’s when they came back in and put a, quote, “offer” on the table that was so ridiculous.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That ridiculous offer, coming up on our next episode.

 

Brett McGurk: They said they’re open to a prisoner exchange.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And my trial begins.

 

Mary Rezaian: And one woman came down and she said: voy, voy, you should see that new court number 15, there’s TV cameras and they’re all these photographers standing around—there must be a very important trial going on.

 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s next time.

 

Jason Rezaian: 544 Days is an original series from Crooked Media and A24. It’s hosted by me, Jason Rezaian. Our senior producer is Matt Frassica. Julie Carli is our associate producer. Our editor is Alison MacAdam, with fact checking by Amy Tardif. Sound design by Josephine Holtzman of Future Projects. Our theme and other original music is by Ramtin Arablouei. Production support from Sydney Rapp and Gabi Mrozowki. The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Jess Lubben, Lyra Smith, and Alison Falzetta. Special thanks to Tommy Vietor and Ravi Nandan.