Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out – Jason Rezaian
The United States and Iran share a long and storied past, defined in moments that changed world history. The removal of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, followed by the reinstatement of the Shah and the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979, set the stage for decades of tension between the two nations. And incredibly, it was under this tension that the administration of U.S. President Barack H. Obama engaged in talks that resulted in the The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, simply known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. The deal was both heralded as a landmark achievement and a kowtow of the worst kind. But what many Americans did not know, was that there was far more taking place behind the scenes, including the release of U.S. prisoners held in Iranian jails. Among those prisoners, was American born journalist Jason Rezaian, of The Washington Post. You may remember him from his appearance on Anthony Bourdain’s (1956-2018) hit show No Reservations. The episode was beautifully done and Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh, appear as voices of insight into Iranian culture. At the conclusion of the episode, there is a message on the screen that they both had been taken by Iranian intelligence. The episode is my second favorite, the first is Vietnam in which President Obama makes a surprise appearance and enjoys a meal with Bourdain in Ho Chih Minh City. On January 16, 2016, Rezaian was released was repatriated to the United States. Joining him were his Iranian born wife and his mother who never stopped fighting for her son’s release.
The book came to me as a recommendation from Amazon and I have to say, it was right on the money with this one. I easily recognized Rezaian and was curious to know exactly what did take place during his incarceration. The goods are all here and at times, I had to shake my head at the words and actions of his captors. The Twilight Zone atmosphere, as Rezaian once describes it, is periodically broken by his recollections of his early life and his family’s history. He explains his reasons for leaving America in his early thirties and moving to Iran, the place of his late father’s birth. At first, the book reads like a typical story of a young man who found a home away from home. He meets the love of his life, Yeganeh and the two begin to build their life together as a married couple. But on July 22, 2014, that all changed when they were arrested, blindfolded and transported to the Evin Prison in Tehran.
Authorities are convinced Rezaian is conduction “spionage”, as they call it and have labeled him a master spy who has come to spread revolution in Iran, through the import of “avocados”. At first I could not believe my eyes but the insanity only increases. Interrogators employ endless mind tricks in order to get Rezaian to “cooperate” and “admit” his wrongdoings, even without being able to say for certain what they were. They assure him that they are there to “help”. Rezaian’s sharp wit, adds a level of comedy to the story that lightens the mood and keeps the reader glued to the book, anticipating the next page. But the reality is that the charges were serious, in fact, deadly serious. More than once he is threatened with execution. The jury is still out whether the Iranians ever intended to actually commit such an act or if it was strictly a scare tactic that they knew would have backfired publicly and politically. Their attempts to interrogate him and their obsession with American films and politics, has the effect of turning the affair into a three-ring circus in which Rezaian is the only one with a sane mind. How he kept his sanity, sense or humor and composure, many of us will never truly know. Perhaps it is the human will to survive which at times can be stronger than most would expect. Rezaian admits that he nearly gave in on more than one occasion but the world was rooting for him and the support of his family, in particular his brother, help provide the inspiration he needed to remain stoic and defiant, until he once again walked the streets as a free man.
As to be expected, the Iran Nuclear Deal is a significant back story to the book and integral to his eventual release. As a prison inside Iran, Rezaian was given an insider’s view into Iranian society and the mood in Tehran as its leaders and Washington hammered out an agreement that had been reached with the hope that the two nations could begin open dialogue which could eventually end in peace that has eluded both for nearly forty years. Rezaian discusses the process and the difficulties of reaching an agreement which also included himself and other prisoners. But even he admits that at the time, he had no idea of how many people were at work, doing everything in their power to secure his release and several others. The ending of the book plays out as if Hollywood sent its best writers but this is not fiction. It was a show of diplomatic power at its finest and a story in which the good guy does win.
Sadly, hopes of peace between Iran and America faded with the announcement of President Donald J. Trump that the United States would withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal. On May 8, 2018, the withdrawal went into effect and only time will tell what will happen but I sincerely hope that peace does prevail. For Jason Rezaian, peace came in a different form and his freedom from the Evin Prison, has given him an even deeper perspective of where Iran continues to go wrong. He also explains the many areas in which non-Iranians fail in understanding how and why its society operates in the manner that it does. But make no mistake, this is his story and how he survived incarceration in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
August 19, 1953-Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (1882-1967) is removed from power in a coup engineered by British MI6 and the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency under the control of Kermit Roosevelt. Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980) returns from exile in Rome to reestablish himself as the nation’s highest authority. The Shah proceeds to place the country in an iron grip, enforcing dictatorial rule for the next twenty-five years before his abdication in 1979 resulting in the seizure of power by the Ayatollah Khomeini setting Iran on a path of radical Islamic rule highlighted by the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The coup in 1953 and the actions of U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1979, permanently changed the relationship between the United States and the once promising Islamic Republic.
A little more than one year ago, the United States in conjunction with several other allies, reached a formal agreement to limit Iran’s ability to manufacture and stockpile nuclear weapons. The agreement has been both lionized and criticized by the far right and far left. It is assumed by many that Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States and seeks to destroy all that America stands for. Islamophobia and ignorance have allowed the belief that Iran is a threat to peace in the western hemisphere to proliferate exponentially. Christianity still holds the record for the largest number of followers. But that might change sooner than we might believe. The Pew Research Center has projected that Islam will hold the title of the world’s largest religion by 2070. The overwhelming majority of people who believe in Islam are very peaceful and sincere individuals. Fanatical believers unafraid of committing extremist acts have cast a dark cloud over the faith, breeding fear and suspicion that have resulted in a surge in hate crimes against those of the Muslim faith. But was Islamophobia the sole reason for the actions of August, 1953?
Stephen Kinzer revisits Iran in 1953 in this investigative account of the origins of the coup, its implementation and consequences which continue to haunt Iran and the world to this day. The life of Mohammad Mossadegh, the charismatic voice of democracy and liberty who gained a following as he chartered his course with the purpose of transforming Iranian society, is examined in detail. Free speech, open elections and personal freedom became staples of his rule giving hope and optimism to thousands of believers. But as we learn in from Kinzer’s investigative efforts, foreign influences, economic restrictions and domestic threats embarked on a collision course that dealt Iran a blow from which it has never fully recovered.
But just how did the coup happen and why was it initiated? The answers to those questions, found in this book, are key to understanding the tragic results of U.S. and British involvement in the nation’s domestic affairs. Greed, oil, British embarrassment and the fear of communism, were just a few ingredients in a stew that served as the catalyst for Mossadegh’s removal. The lack of appreciation for Iranian history and the complicated relationship between the Shiites and Sunni Muslims, allowed intelligence operatives from abroad to engage in a deadly plot resulting in one of the darkest moments in Middle Eastern history. Today it is difficult to believe that the coup affects present day events. But as we learn through Kinzer, destabilization and political turmoil that ensued giving rise to fierce anti-western ideology, is directly tied to the coup. The attack on the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and subsequent events further complicated matters. War with Iraq and the emergence of international terrorism pioneered by radicals such as Osama Bin Laden continued to amplify aggression on both sides. The nuclear arms restriction deal came as a result of long hours of discussion, assurances and acts of faith by all involved. Agreements reached with the deal, have given way to the first steps on the road to reconciliation.
We have much ground to cover as we continue to reconcile with Iran. Many wounds have yet to fully heal and will require more patience and understanding on both sides. The first step, which has already been taken, is to admit wrongdoing. Governments can apologize but its citizens can and do sometimes remain defiant and unconvinced of any form of complicity. In order for us to understand Iran and remove our fear of Islamophobia and our destruction, we must first learn why their feelings exist. Only then can we begin to untangle our complicated coexistence and move forward in a harmonious and promising direction.
“Those who are at war with others are not at peace with themselves.”- William Hazlitt