In This Episode
Is it possible to return to “normal” after a traumatic imprisonment? As Jason and Yegi begin to make a new life in the U.S., they each face their own struggles. And they confront the troubling reality that, five years later, Iran and other countries continue taking political hostages.
Jason Rezaian: Welcome to the final episode. And thank you for coming this far. You already know this by now, but I have to warn you, this episode includes some cussing.
Jason Rezaian: Previously on 544 Days:
Carol Morello: So I went to the phone, called this person who was in Geneva who told me, you need to get here tonight, Jason is going to be let out.
Mary Rezaian: And you’re looking at me and saying, is this actually happening? And I’m saying, yes, it’s happening. They can’t back off of this now.
Carol Morello: Zarif and Kerry were going to sign the papers that were implementing the JCPOA, and they would also hand over to Iran over a billion dollars.
Lisa Monaco: The president wants an update. The president wants an update. And we kept hoping that we could tell them it was wheels-up.
Ali Rezaian: I got back on the phone with Yegi and said, you guys need to be ready to leave immediately.
Yegi Rezaian: He reached out and held my hand that he realized I was really shaking, and he told me, it’s fine. This airplane is Swiss soil. You get on that, you’re gonna be safe.
Lisa Monaco: And once they’re on that plane, they’re out of Iran’s jurisdiction.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: We were only in Geneva for a few minutes before we got on another plane. I just survived the most insanely intense day ever. I would have stress eaten a bucket of just about anything. But when the flight attendant asked if I wanted a snack, I instinctively said no. After so many years of living in Iran, this was just an automatic response. It’s customary there to decline the first offer of food, sometimes the second. It’s never, ever taken seriously by the person making the offer. But in my sleep deprived state, I forgot where I was, who I was with. I waited for a couple of minutes for the second offer of food, and then it hit me, there wouldn’t be one. These were Americans. I’d passed up my only chance to get that tiny little bag of airplane pretzels. I wasn’t home free yet. We had to make a stop in Germany. When we landed, all the ex hostages, Amir, Saeed and I, were hustled on to a long yellow school bus. It was headed to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. That’s where the U.S. military takes former hostages for what they call post-captivity care. The hospital itself looked pretty ordinary. The only difference was that there were news crews huddled in the cold outside. It took me a while to realize they were there for me. After a shower, I met with a doctor. He gave me a perfunctory physical and then tested me for tuberculosis. Once the doctor decided I wasn’t in any immediate medical danger, it was the psychologists’ turn.
Debriefer: So we’re recording. My name’s [bleep]. I’m the lead SERE debriefer. Just go ahead and identify yourself for the—
Jason Rezaian: Jason Rezaian.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I sat in a little room with some government shrinks.
Debriefer: So wherever you start to . . .
Jason Rezaian: Where do people usually start?
Debriefer: Yeah, typically what they do is just kind of tell their story in the order that’s happened—
Jason Rezaian: Yeah.
Debriefer: Up until—
Jason Rezaian: Al right.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I told them everything I could remember about my arrest and detention. And I didn’t leave anything out.
Jason Rezaian: Then at some point, you know, I had some pain in my left nut. And you know, my wife told my aunt and she went on onepain of the Farsi-language channels and said, you know, he’s got ball or whatever. And you know, that was all over the TV and so, you know, why are you, why are you making this worse, you know? Why are the Americans so worried about your balls? It’s OK to laugh, it’s all right.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I have this audio because the psychologists gave me a recorder to capture those first blurry hours of freedom. This kind of interview is standard. It’s the initial baby step towards recovery. Listening to it five years later, I realize just how much I had to get off my chest.
Jason Rezaian: And I’ll be honest, I felt like I’ve been thrown under the bus by everybody. And now that I’m out and talking to people that been working on my behalf, I realized that, it just wasn’t true. And my wife and my mom, who were the only two people that were able to see me, they didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes. How could they? At the end of the day, there’s no way around the fact that I got completely hosed, 18 months for absolutely nothing. And more than anything. I, I don’t get this year and a half back. My team won the NBA Finals for the first time in my life and I was in fucking prison. They started the season 25 and 0 and I was in fucking prison. A new Star Wars movie came out that’s supposedly really good, and I was in a fucking prison and Obama was there, and he told my family that he wasn’t going to rest until I come home. But he got to go see Star Wars, you know? And I’m free now, and Iran is the biggest fucking story in the world, and I was covering it for years and years, and I don’t get the cover anymore, so I’m fucking angry. Obviously, a lot of other stuff happened, but none of it’s coming to mind right now.
Debriefer: Stopping point?
Jason Rezaian: Yeah.
Debriefer: All right.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: After everything I’d been through, I still had a long road ahead. I’m Jason Rezaian, and this is 544 Days. Episode 9: Coming home, after a year and a half as a hostage in Iran.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: By the time we got to Germany, we were running on fumes. My mom remembers a kind of delirium.
Mary Rezaian: Feeling relief, exhaustion, because this had been like a 40-hour day for us. We had had no sleep, so it had been a really long day and I was beyond exhaustion.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: On that first night at Landstuhl, I ate a rubbery grilled cheese sandwich and watched the news from my hospital bed. There was a reporter live on location in Germany who looked half frozen. I turned up the volume just a little higher. Pictures of me, Saeed and Amir popped up on the screen. After so many months of being portrayed as the villain in Iran, I was suddenly watching myself being cast as the good guy. I did have to laugh a little, though, when the reporter said we were free. That wasn’t quite true. For my first few days outside of Evin, I was in the care of the U.S. military at Landstuhl. They were limiting my contact with the outside world, and I probably couldn’t have just wandered off the base, even if I’d felt like it. But I was allowed to see my family, which meant seeing Ali for the first time in almost two years.
Ali Rezaian: I had gone out to go meet with some of the doctors or something like that. It was something to do with kind of transitions and you were there. I said, hey. So, tried to be as normal as possible, I guess.
Jason Rezaian: What’d we talk about?
Ali Rezaian: Ah, fuck if I know. [laughing]
Jason Rezaian: Yeah. Me neither.
Ali Rezaian: I mean, I don’t know, I mean, how’s the food in the hospital? You know, you want, you want schnitzel or ghormeh sabzi for dinner? I don’t know.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And that was that. At least some things hadn’t changed while I was in prison. The first night in Germany, Ali was sitting in his room with my mom and Yegi and his cell phone rang.
Ali Rezaian: I had gotten hundreds of phone calls that day. And so I’m getting all these unlisted phone calls and just ignoring, ignoring, ignoring them. And I get this phone call and I just ignore it. And then it called right back and I actually answered the phone. You know, like, yeah, this is the switchboard at the White House, is this the brother of Jason Rezaian? Yes. The president of United States would like to speak to you. I said, well, then I guess it’s a good thing that I answered the phone. And the president got on the phone, said, you know, just wanted to call and we’re glad we got, your brother got out. And I said, you know, I really appreciate you and the efforts of your administration.
Mary Rezaian: And that was the end of the phone call. And then to me, he turned and he said, the president says, to say hi to your mom. And at that point, my heart swelled because I was so appreciative of everything that had been done by everybody and starting with the administration, but also how Ali had, had handled everything.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Those first couple of days, my circle of contacts stayed pretty small. I met with Marty Baron and Doug Jehl, my bosses from the post. It wasn’t until day three that my TB test came back negative. After that, Yegi and I were allowed to sleep in the same bed for the first time in a year and a half. I’ve been reunited with my family and I knew I’d be heading home soon. But for Yegi, those days in Germany were full of anxiety. She was effectively stateless. She had no passport and she was moving to a country she didn’t know.
Yegi Rezaian: It was another page in that very thick book of continuous days of uncertainty for me, not knowing where I’m going, who I am meeting, being super excited, but at the same time lost in translations. Yes, we were going to United States, but where are we going? What are we going to do with? We don’t have a house? There’s no one waiting for us. There’s no family member that has prepared like a cup of tea for us. You know what I’m saying? It’s like too many fast changes.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: There was another group of people at Landstuhl waiting to find out what was going to happen next. The herd of reporters gathered outside the hospital.
Ali Rezaian: And I just kept on getting phone calls, when is Jason going to talk, you know, can we get an interview with him? Can we just get a picture of Jason?
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I knew I was still very fragile. I had seen a clip of Amir Hekmati speaking with the press on our second day at Landstuhl. Watching him on TV, I imagined searching for the right words to describe what I’d been through. I wasn’t ready. Definitely not to talk to reporters. So instead, we agreed to go outside for a photo op, the whole family. There would be no questions. Just a minute or two for pictures. [sounds of cameras] Ali, my mom and Yegi all walked out of the hospital with me. We stood there and I waved for a few seconds, awkwardly. And then my mom waved like Meryl Streep on the red carpet. Despite our ground rules, reporters asked questions anyway.
[reporter] How are you feeling, Jason? Good to be out?
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I said yes and I shut my mouth again. I didn’t want to encourage any more questions and was suddenly unsure where I should put my hands. Should I smile, look serious. The end result is a lot of pictures of me looking thoroughly unimpressed. Looking back, it should have been obvious the public interest wasn’t going to end with my release. My story had become too enmeshed in politics. Now the name Jason Rezaian was tied forever to a nuclear deal that a lot of American politicians despised. It wasn’t until this moment that it started to hit me that my life after release was going to be nothing like the life I knew before. But with those few days left in limbo, I’d soak up all of the good I could get, or at least all the good I could get at a secluded U.S. military installation in Germany.
Ali Rezaian: It was the schnitzel fest of 2016.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Don’t ever say the Rezaians don’t know how to throw a party.
Ali Rezaian: We found some German restaurant that would deliver to the base, and you know, basically all they had was schnitzel. We ordered like 10 different kinds of schnitzel. I don’t even know what schnitzel is. And you know, all right. We need some appetizers and we need, you know, a case of beer,
Jason Rezaian: A case of Diet Coke.
Ali Rezaian: And I’m pretty sure there was a case of Diet Coke. Yeah.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Aside from the array of fried meats, our schnitzel fest was also memorable because of our dinner guest, Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post. Yeah, he flew to Germany to be with us.
Yegi Rezaian: I don’t think he even looked at his phone the entire evening. That’s how engaged he was with us about family topics and a little bit of prison memories and eating 12,000 different versions of schnitzel that they all tasted the same.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And then when I finally left Landstuhl Medical Center after five days, Jeff Bezos flew us home on his plane.
Mary Rezaian: Which was festooned with posters and balloons. “Welcome home, Jason.” “Jason is free.” It was a surreal experience, really.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: The thing that really sticks out for me about that flight was another reunion that I’d been waiting for years. The plane was stocked with burritos. And guacamole. Yeah, the Avocado Revolution had finally come full circle. Our first destination in the US was Bangor, Maine. They chose a remote airport where we wouldn’t be swarmed by press, and immigration wouldn’t be crowded. As we got close, I remember looking out the window of the plane and seeing rivers and lakes in a frozen landscape.
Yegi Rezaian: You were explaining to me before the airplane landed that it’s like, yes, up north and it’s cold and it borders Canada. I just remember really, really long pine trees and snow. That’s it. It was like green and white, green and white. A little bit green but everything else, the building is white, the ground everywhere is white. And then, like six or seven of us were like little human beings in the middle of all those snow. You got off the plane and you kissed the ground.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: The tarmac was freezing cold. Kissing asphalt isn’t my idea of a celebration, but Ali made me do it. I was officially free. They loaded us onto a van to transport us to the terminal, then an ICE officer came on board.
Yegi Rezaian: He was this big muscle man guy with a beard and ginger hair, like, with like a gun and like a real American airport officer who can be really tough and scary at times. And he, he started crying. Like he got very emotional and welcomed you home and he said something like, if they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: We got off the van and went inside. Then we all watched anxiously while Yegi went to talk with an immigration officer.
Yegi Rezaian: They took my fingerprints and there were a couple of questions that they asked. And they made a couple of phone calls.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: After a few minutes, Yegi came back with tears in her eyes. I worried that something was wrong. Another roadblock in our monumentally fucked up journey. But no, she was granted a visa under what they call humanitarian parole.
Yegi Rezaian: And they were super sweet and welcoming to me, and they have prepared all the papers. So the papers, everything was ready and I got—
Jason Rezaian: What was going through your mind? Were you scared?
Yegi Rezaian: No, at that point, I was not scared at all. Instead, I felt really ashamed about the fact that in Tehran, they have delayed us for such a long time. And honestly, I was just comparing the way I entered the United States with the way that I left my country, like so suddenly, and they never gave me a piece of paper saying that you were not charged or indicted, or this case wasn’t even about you, it was about taking your husband hostage. So it made me feel really, really ashamed.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That day that we arrived in the U.S., a blizzard had started pummeling the East Coast. You might remember that storm. People called it Snowzilla. It dumped over two feet of snow on Washington, D.C. and New York. All the airports were closing. After everything we’d been through, we had no plan for where to go next. No American home to return to.
Yegi Rezaian: So we decided to go somewhere warm. And I think between Jeff and your brother, they came up with this plan to send us to some honeymoon, second honeymoon trip
Jason Rezaian, narrating: From Maine, we flew to Key West to wait out the storm, and take care of a few cravings.
Yegi Rezaian: You wanted sushi. So we went to the sushi place twice. You went. I passed out the first night.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yeah, my first night as a free man, I went out to dinner alone.
Yegi Rezaian: We woke up very early. I think because we were both jetlagged, we every morning went to a gym and exercised. You we’re like exercise fanatic.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: I’d gotten hooked on all that walking in Evin.
Yegi Rezaian: And then we ate breakfast every morning and went out for long walks on the beach.
Jason Rezaian: What was your favorite memory from, from that?
Yegi Rezaian: From being in Key West? Uh, having my husband back.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: But no honeymoon lasts forever. Eventually, we were going to have to start interacting with other people again. Our reentry really began a week after we got to the U.S. We flew from Key West to Washington, D.C. The Posted had moved its headquarters into a state-of-the-art building and was hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Yegi and I sat in the front row, along with governors, White House officials, and foreign dignitaries.
John Kerry: The dedication of this building is a neon sign of faith in the future of journalism.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Secretary of State John Kerry was the keynote speaker.
John Kerry: But obviously, this is particularly sweet for everybody now that Jason is home. In the military, as you all know, and in other dangerous callings, the most sacred pledge that you can make is to never leave a buddy behind. Like most pledges, it’s a lot easier to say than to do. This gnawed at us, because we sensed the wrongfulness, and we knew that Jason and others were living the consequences. And the time lost can never be reclaimed. But Jason, we are all so delighted that you are back now.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Hearing this now, it reminds me how overwhelming it was to watch John Kerry get choked up talking about me. All those months I spent in prison, pissed off and convinced that the Obama administration wasn’t doing shit for me. Now I could see it was so much more complicated than that. At that event, I started meeting the people who’d been working for months to free me.
Jon Finer: It’s funny, you know, like when you’re in these jobs following around somebody like Secretary Kerry, you meet all kinds of people from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping to Pope Francis, and you stop sort of being nervous about these encounters after a while.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Jon Finer. At the time, Kerry’s Chief of Staff. We met him and Secretary Kerry that day.
Jon Finer: Maybe you become a bit blasé or jaded, but I remember being very excited to meet you and to shake your hand. And frankly, probably on some level, just to see how you were doing after you had, everything you had been through. There is this sense too often, I think, especially when you’re at a place like the White House or the State Department, that you are having these debates and moving pieces on a chess board, but without having to experience what this actually looks like and feels like for people out in the world. And you’re kind of a living embodiment of the stakes of these decisions and the execution.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: To be honest, there was so much going on at the time that this event at The Post is a blur. So we have to rely on people like Jon, who remember it more clearly.
Jon Finer: I remember leaving there being very touched, obviously, by the things that people said, but I guess I just felt like also on a personal level, you seemed like you were doing unbelievably well given everything that you had been through.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s very kind. But the truth is Yegi and I are good performers. I wasn’t doing unbelievably well. Both Yegi and I were starting to feel the aftereffects of sustained trauma.
Yegi Rezaian: We really had ban sleeping. I mean, I remember every night you woke up at 4 a.m. with nightmares and I had to like, like a baby, keep patting you and scratching your back or your head. It was very scary because I was really worried for your health, to be honest. I was like, first of all, did anything happen that I don’t know? Second, how long this is going to go on>? And third, how do we get it fixed?
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Fear and anxiety were just the first layers. We started misplacing things. Little things like keys or a wallet, all of which drove the perfectionist in Yegi crazy. Memory loss is a pretty common symptom. So is irritability. All the telltale signs of PTSD showed up in those early days. They’d be with us for a long time. Some of them still are. Probably always will be. We pushed ourselves to begin functioning again. For me, going to therapy helped move that process forward. Some days it meant a lot just to have the doctors say yes, what you’re experiencing is normal for a severely traumatized person. And it meant a lot to be assured that healing is possible, though it’s not guaranteed. A couple of months after my release, the unthinkable happened.
[clip of President Obama] A free press is why, once again, we honor Jason Rezaian.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yeah, he finally got my name right, at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
[clip of President Obama] Last time this year, we spoke of Jason’s courage as he endured the isolation of an Iranian prison. This year, we see that courage in the flesh.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And it probably wasn’t an accident. Remember how Fred Ryan, the publisher of The Washington Post, had been meeting with Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough? Here’s Fred:
Fred Ryan: I remember one meeting where I pushed, said what are you doing? What are you doing? And he said, well, what is it you want us to do? And I said, well, you can start by having the president pronounce his name correctly. And Dennis said, well, how is it pronounced? So I said, All right, remember it this way. It’s like Ryan with a z Rezaian. And he goes, OK, I got it. I got it.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Thanks, Fred. You always had my back. Still do. So back at the White House Correspondents Dinner, this time I got to speak for myself.
Jason, at the dinner: Thank you. This is a big and intimidating room, but I can say that it beats solitary confinement.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: For so long, other people, well-intentioned people, were proxies for my voice and my name. It felt good to have both of them back.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Coming up: taking back my story would be a whole other ballgame, because anything that attracts this much attention is bound to get political.
[clip of President Trump] As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And after my release, Iran keeps taking innocent people hostage.
Roger Carstens We’ve not come up with the tools that we need to prevent people from doing this.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s after the break.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: As the 2016 presidential election began to heat up, the deal that got me out became a prime-time issue.
[clip of President Obama] It looks like we paid $400 million for the hostages, right? Such a bad precedent.
[clip of Hillary Clinton] So far as I know it had nothing to do with any kind of hostage swap or any other tit-or-tat.
[clip of Mike Pence] Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama essentially put a price tag on the head of every American traveling abroad in violation of longstanding American policy.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Pundits and politicians questioned the terms of my release. And like I explained in the last episode, my release did coincide with a $400 million payment, the first installment on a debt of $1.7 billion. The U.S. owed Iran that money from a deal they struck before the revolution in the 1970s. Paying it back was part of the implementation of the nuclear deal. So it wasn’t ransom for me. Still, at the last minute, the US did hold up that money until we, Yegi and I, got out of Iran. So I understand, it’s complicated. Trump and the Republicans attacked the payment relentlessly, and they keep doing it, even now. It’s hard not to feel like they were saying it would be better if I were still locked up.
Mary Rezaian: And that theme played an important part in the downer that I was experiencing once I got to America.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was tough for mom to watch all of this.
Mary Rezaian: Those were the probably among the hardest months of my life, other than when close people have died because the expectation was that he’s free, everything’s wonderful now. And at the same time, you know, we were being haunted by dreams and ghosts and fears.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: One of the first things I decided to do when I got back to the U.S. was try to take charge of my own story. And that started about a month after my release with a conversation over yakitori.
Anthony Bourdain: I was just happy to see you guys. It was nice to drink beer and eat, you know, chicken bits on skewers, you know, and laugh about anything.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yegi and I got to see Anthony Bourdain again. He’d never stopped advocating for me while I was in prison. And when I got out, he encouraged me to write a memoir. Telling the story I wanted to tell in the way I wanted to tell it. In the end, he published it.
Jason Rezaian: Was it important for you to do this book with me?
Anthony Bourdain: It’s personal, first of all, it’s personal. So there’s that. You have a story that I personally want people to hear, in an evangelical way. And I find myself in a position to do that and that makes me feel good.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Of all the things in my story Bourdain was curious about, he zoomed in on the one major character I wouldn’t be able to interview: Kazem.
Anthony Bourdain: You asked me what questions I would like to see answered the book: if you have any sympathy for your interrogators.
Jason Rezaian: Of course. I mean, I hugged the motherfucker at the end. It’s a year and a half of my life. Like, I like to think that I penetrated his worldview somehow. I’m sure I did, you know?
Anthony Bourdain: I hope you guys bump into each other in a taco stand in East L.A., some day.
Jason Rezaian: Exactly. Once his asylum case—
Anthony Bourdain: He looks up, shame-faced. You know?
Jason Rezaian: Exactly.
Anthony Bourdain: Eating a burrito in the Mission District. America is great!
Jason Rezaian: I was so wrong!
Anthony Bourdain: Meet my new girlfriend, Misty.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: My memoir came out on Borden’s imprint a couple of years ago. It’s called “Prisoner.” With that book and with this podcast, I got back on the Iran beat by reporting the one story only I could: my own, informed by the experiences of everyone you’ve heard. And I asked each of them: in the end, what did it really take to get me out
Brett McGurk: You ask a question I can’t answer because I don’t know exactly what unlocked it. But I was, there were plenty of moments where I thought this was all about to fall through. But I don’t know. I think it was pretty good diplomacy on our part.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Brett McGurk, the guy who sat in the room with the Iranian agents and haggled over my fate. John Kerry agreed.
John Kerry: I believe in diplomacy. America has traditionally believed in diplomacy.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And I asked them, what should you, listening to this, take away from it?
John Kerry: Well, I hope it means that you actually can resolve certain problems in the world if you approach them with a measure of restraint and respect. You can find a way to communicate with people. And if you don’t, this world is going to be even more complicated and more difficult to manage than it already is.
Jon Finer: It was the best example I can think of what the US government can do when things are working the way they can and the way they should.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is Jon Finer again, who was Kerry’s chief of staff.
Jon Finer: It almost never works exactly that way. And there was no other way, except for everybody sort of pulling together in a coordinated, synchronized and effective way and doing their jobs.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: It’s easy to take a crap on the federal bureaucracy. But my experience shows that sometimes they get the job done. Of course, it wasn’t hard work by the government alone that got me released. My mom picked up her life and moved to Tehran. She went toe to toe with the IRGC on their fucking turf and stood her ground. She and Yegi never wavered in the face of real intimidation. Never gave up the fight for us to be reunited. And my brother figured out how to get himself in front of the highest officials in the land and got them to do what he needed them to. That didn’t go unnoticed. When I talked to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former foreign policy adviser, he singled out Ali’s work.
Ben Rhodes: Look, Jason, I’m going to say this as honestly as I can, right? Which is that the United States government, as an institution, is not waking up every day and thinking just about this, you know? Whereas your brother is. And that means that sometimes you’ve got to rattle the cage and sometimes you’ve got to make something a public issue in ways that are inconvenient to the government.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: So you got to rattle the cage. Be loud and single minded. Ali understood this, and he was never intimidated or star-struck by any of the high-ranking officials with fancy titles.
Ali Rezaian: So when you think about somebody and you think about these people as people, right, they’ve got a family, they’ve got kids. Now, maybe they think that they’re hot shit. I’m not talking about anybody in particular, right? And you’re just like eh, they’re a person. They’ve got power that I need to be able to get them to use on my behalf. And that’s the way I went about it.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And then there was The Washington Post, where four traditional journalists, advocating for a cause, even when it involved one of its own, didn’t come naturally. My arrest put Marty Baron and Doug Jehl in an uncomfortable position, but they never shied away from it. I’d say it even grew into it. So in the face of huge obstacles, The Post, my family, and the U.S. government worked hard, sometimes together, and that’s why I have my life back. But I also got pretty fucking lucky. I was a high-profile journalist from a major news organization taken hostage in the middle of once-in-a-generation negotiations. So many people arrested by Iran and other countries don’t have that visibility. Most of them you’ve never even heard of. Now that I’m out, I do what I can to keep reminding the world that other people are still in.
[News clip] Now Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian woman sentenced to five years imprisonment in Iran in 2016, has been told she will stand trial on fresh charges and return to prison after a hearing next Monday.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is an Iranian British dual national, a charity worker. She lived in London but made regular trips to Iran to visit family. Just a couple of months after I got out of Iran, Nazanin was at the airport in Iran with her 22-month old daughter, Gabriella. They were waiting to get on a plane that was going to take them home to the UK. Instead, Nazanin was detained and Gabriella was taken away from her.
Richard Radcliffe: For her to be taken away from her mum was devastating for Nazanin. And you know, I think those first days, she just cried all night, every night. Just the loss of her baby was all that she felt.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband. She was sentenced to five years in Evin by, you guessed it, Judge Abolgasem Salavati. As Richard was trying to figure out what to do, he kept coming across stories about my case.
Richard Radcliffe: We first reached out to you and actually, in fact, to your brother, way back in the beginning when we were first taken and were really floundering about what was going on. And, you know, through the past four years have been in contact with you. The conversations I would have very first had with you were exactly around: should we go public, how should we do it, what should we do? You know, so talking through why that strategy worked, what you did, what why you felt that was appropriate, or exactly why Ali felt, since he was obviously in control at the time,
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Ali and I recommended speaking out loudly and frequently. But Richard was getting the opposite advice from his government.
Richard Radcliffe: The British government is quite sophisticated in how it discourages a family from talking. That it’s best handled delicately, and, you know, we really advise against you going to tell the media. Of course it’s your choice. So they’ll always create a climate whereby you feel that you’re stepping into the unknown and that you’re taking risks with your loved ones, health and safety.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Maybe the most frustrating part of all of this is how it keeps happening. Nazanin was detained less than three months after I got out.
Richard Radcliffe: You know, you have a regime that is desperate and ruthless, and in all honesty, there’s a limit to how much you can abuse any one person. If you wish to escalate, at some point, you take someone new. It’s a very straightforward logic of how these work. There’s only so much publicity they can get out Nazanin, before they will take someone equally outrageous.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: More than five years after her arrest, Nazanin is still being held in Tehran. Because of the pandemic, she was let out of Evin and placed under house arrest. She still lives with the constant threat of being sent back to prison. Her daughter, Gabriella, is now in the third grade, growing up in London without her mother. I’m now part of this weird fraternity, a group that didn’t choose to be together and would love nothing more than to add no new members.
Sam Goodwin: I’m Sam Goodwin. I was detained on false charges of espionage in Syria for 63 days.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert: Kylie Moore-Gilbert imprisoned in Iran for 804 days.
Wang Xiyue: I am Wang Xiyue. I was held as American hostage in Iran’s Evin prison for 1,216 days.
Nizar Zakka: My name is Nizar Zakka. I spent 1,362 days as hostage in Evin prison in Iran.
Alan Gross: My name is Alan Gross. I was held hostage in Cuba for 1,837 days.
Mirsani: [speaking Azeri]
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That last voice. That’s my cell mate, Mirsani. He wants you to know that he was held hostage for 641 days. He’s free now. Back home in Azerbaijan. But check this out his sister and his niece now live in Washington, D.C. They own a bakery called Sharbat. Yegi and I go there all the time and they make an incredible honey cake. Sometimes they let me pay. Sometimes they don’t. Few things make me happier than another hostage being freed. But I also know the problem isn’t going away. Right now, Iran is holding four American citizens: Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi, Baquer Namazi and his son, Siamak. Siamak was in Evin when I was freed. He wasn’t part of the deal. He’s been a hostage in Iran for six years, 2,200 days. And then there’s Bob Levinson, abducted in Iran in 2007. The Islamic Republic has still never publicly acknowledged his arrest. Last year, the U.S. government announced it had intelligence that Levinson had died in custody. But his family still needs answers. I always call these people hostages. When I was taken, U.S. officials refused to do that. I was always ‘wrongfully’ or ‘unjustly’ detained as though my arrest was just some bureaucratic mix up. Governments should call it what it is: hostage taking. Still, there are signs that the U.S. approach is evolving. Here’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
[clip of Anthony Blinken] It’s time to send a clear message to every government that arbitrarily detains foreign nationals and tries to use them as leverage: this will not be tolerated by the international community.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Secretary Blinken put this video out earlier this year. It’s part of an effort to create a more unified international coalition. Strength in numbers. The idea is that countries should band together to make hostage-taking less rewarding. They need to take a zero-tolerance stance and use legal tools that affect the perpetrators personally, like travel restrictions, asset seizures and arrests. It would be a start. Already, the U.S. government has created a role that didn’t exist when I was first detained. It’s called “Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.” Currently, the job is held by Roger Carstens.
Roger Carstens: You know, I know in this office we always feel like there’s this, this sense of urgency, and we’re trying to actually communicate that and help others to feel that urgency.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Carstens’ role exists because of a big review of hostage policy that President Obama ordered. And then late last year, Congress passed the Levinson Act, named after Bob Levinson. It gives the executive branch even more resources and responsibility in bringing hostages home. So the government is making real improvements. But it’s still a work in progress.
Roger Carstens: Even though I spend almost all my time on getting people home, taking care of the families, and trying to tighten the communication and the structure of what we call the hostage recovery enterprise, my dream about the tools I want, are all mainly on the preventative side. We’ve got to figure out the preventative side because in the last 40, 50, 60, 70 years, we’ve just not done it. We’ve not come up with the tools that we need to prevent people from doing this.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: This interview with Carstens is part of a project I’m working on with my colleagues at Washington Post Opinions. It’s about the problem of state hostage taking. At the center of it is a documentary called “Bring Them Home” which follows another American family that’s currently trying to free a hostage from Iran. One thing we’ve learned in the reporting is that the problem is getting worse. Iran isn’t the only country doing this: China, Russia, Venezuela, Myanmar, and others are taking hostages, too.
Roger Carstens: Some have argued that what’s happening right now is a new norm. That state hostage taking or the taking of Americans and, you know, wrongfully that that’s just the way that people are starting to conduct diplomacy nowadays. I’d say that there’s some truth to that.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: In his work, roger Carstens is surrounded by veterans of the effort to free me. Nearly all the Obama administration people you’ve heard in this podcast are back in government now: Jon Finer, Brett McGurk, John Kerry, Lisa Monaco, Wendy Sherman, Denis McDonough—all of them have big jobs in the Biden administration, so they all know this issue. They also know the nuclear deal. They’re the people who built it. And now they’re trying to get the U.S. and Iran back into it. As for me, I’ll keep trying to help other families so there can be no more Mirsanis, no more Nazanins, no more Jasons, and there are more of us than you could ever imagine. This is one way I’ve been able to turn all my frustrations and anger into something constructive. It makes those 544 days not feel like completely wasted time.
Richard Radcliffe: One of the things that I think has always been good for me about our interactions, and I think good for Nazanin now, is that the way in which you embody a vision of the other side. Kind of seeing you a year later and two years later and being able to talk more deeply about stuff that’s painful, right? And that I don’t think you would have done right back at the beginning. And there’s a way in which, you know, gradually the past becomes another country.
Jason Rezaian: So it never bothers you that I spend so much time working on these things?
Yegi Rezaian: No, I absolutely encourage you to do that. There are stories that I don’t want you to write about, but when it comes to human rights? No, absolutely not.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yegi has been working for the Committee to Protect Journalists, doing her part to advocate for colleagues in trouble as she continues to adjust to a new life in a new country.
Yegi Rezaian: I knew you were in prison longer, much longer than me, but I feel like it’s a bigger, more drastic change for me than you. Because to you, despite the fact that you really loved Iran and you loved reporting and you chose to live there and it became your home, but to come back to the United States means you are home. For me, it means I had to learn to live in the new place, create a home out of a place that did not really mean anything to me.
Jason Rezaian: Besides your family, what do you miss most about Iran?
Yegi Rezaian: I mean, maybe if I was living in Tehran, I would never go back to my primary school. But now that I’m sitting here, sometimes I think to myself, well, I wish I could walk to my childhood neighborhood and see if my school is still there or that baker is still there. My friends, obviously, my community. I was a 30-year old woman who was born, lived for 30 years, I went to school, I went to university, I had jobs, I had neighbors, I had friends, I had colleagues. Those were my community. I definitely miss that. I miss those old relationships with my friends. Like, you know, your friend for 10 years, you have sat in this cafe like a million times. But also, I mean, you know, I’m out of that place, but that place is not out of my heart and my mind. I keep thinking about it. Who I am is mostly defined by who I became in that place, whether good or bad, right? Our experience taught me to be thankful about small things like the fact that we are healthy, that we stay together, because our marriage was really happy and healthy before this, I wanted to make sure we, we saved that and we did.
Jason Rezaian: What are the things that bring you joy in life right now?
Yegi Rezaian: I’m becoming a mother. That brings me joy. Like tons of joy. [baby sounds]
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yeah! We finally got our prison wish. One year ago, our son was born. His name is Justus Raha Rezaian. In Persian, Raha means “Free one.”
[sounds of Yegi and Jason with Justus]
Jason Rezaian: 544 Days is a Spotify original podcast from Gimlet, 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. Mixing and sound design by Emma Munger. Additional sound design by Josephine Holtzman of Future Projects. Our theme music is by Ramtin Arablouei and we have more original music by Ramtin and Emma Munger. Additional music by Peter Leonard, Hailey Shaw and Bobby Lorde. Production support from Sydney Rapp, Gabi Mrozowski and Renita Jablonski. The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Jess Lubben, Lyra Smith Alison Falzetta, Colin Campbell and Lydia Polgreen. Special thanks to my old friend Robbie Stauder and to Kate Woodsome and my Washington Post Opinions colleagues, and to Tommy Vietor, Ravi Nandan, Clara Sankey, Dan Behar and Jen Hahn.