Jason Rezaian: Iranian, American

The journalist moved from the U.S. to Tehran to bring change—not to his adopted home, but to audiences in his native one.

Jason Rezaian poses with his wife Yeganeh Salehi outside the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany. (Kai Pfaffenbach / Reuters)

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi were taken from their home in western Tehran on the evening of July 22, 2014. News accounts in the U.S. at the time of his detainment emphasized that Jason, a dual national born and raised in Marin, California, was arrested as an Iranian, and that as a matter of practice the Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize dual citizenship of any kind, much less that of Americans living in Iran.

The refusal to recognize Jason as an American, of course, meant that Iran had to accept him as one of its own. He was an Iranian in the eyes of the government that imprisoned him—and finally released him on Saturday—but Jason was impossible to contain within a single label. Long before he became the American correspondent for The Washington Post, Jason lived and worked in Tehran as an Iranian, a blogger and writer, a founding member of a small and tight-knit community of young expatriates I was a part of for a few years. We were a merry band of Iranian-American scholars, freelance journalists, and occasional tourists committed to bringing the story of the “real Iran” back to the United States.

While most of us counted ourselves itinerant adventurers, always with plans of going back home to the States, Jason was different. It was clear to his friends that he did not want to go back, that Jason viewed his Iranian citizenship, granted through his late father, as both a privilege and a responsibility. The ability to travel without restriction between the United States and Iran seemingly obliged him to serve both homes, to act as a bridge between these two estranged countries, constituent parts of his identity. To do this properly, to see his project through to the end, he would have to remain in Iran.

Jason had grown up in California during the 1980s, the worst years of being an Iranian in America, that decade or so following the revolution when Iran was a recurring bad guy in movies or on television—a procession of terrorists, ayatollahs, and “Iron Sheiks” on parade. Rather than be repelled, he found himself drawn to his father’s homeland in 2008 to undertake the task of bringing change through his reporting—not to Iran, but to his readers in the United States. It was evident that Jason viewed journalism as restorative, a way to humanize Iran and to instill empathy in an American audience long inured to reports of the religious fanaticism and apocalyptic fervor of Iranians. By focusing on the mundane, often exasperating details of daily life in Iran, Jason quietly leaned against the long-standing tropes of reporting from Iran, stories whose dimensions rarely reached beyond elite politics, the veil, or the tribulations of Iran’s disaffected youth.

In this sense, his writing constituted an act of rebellion. Jason was determined to show that Iran contained multitudes, and so he wrote about the travails and triumphs of the ordinary: the religious poor losing faith in the presidency and economic policies of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; a 30-year-old shopkeeper’s epiphany of joy and national pride after Iran’s heartbreaking loss to Argentina in the World Cup; and mid-summer baseball tryouts in Azadi Stadium. These were stories that left the sense that the “authentic Iran” could just as readily be found in an alleyway in Yazd or on a baseball diamond in Tehran as it could be in hidden mountain reactors or the unhinged rants of a Holocaust denier.

Though he wrote as an Iranian for Americans, there were limits to how “real” an Iranian Jason could become. He harbored no illusions. Jason regularly expressed the certainty that no matter how long he lived in Iran, he would remain the khareji, the foreigner, the American among his neighbors and Iranian friends, his accent and mannerisms a permanent source of distinction. More ominously, being “the American” put him at risk with certain elements of the state, and is undoubtedly what led to his imprisonment on charges of espionage. As he told The New York Times a month before his arrest, being a foreign journalist in Iran was “like walking a tightrope.” “When you fall down,” he said, “it is over.”

Still, Jason had reason to feel safe and protected by his community, as an Iranian and as an American. Unconfirmed reports from the night of his arrest said that the caretaker of Jason’s building intervened on his behalf and died after being tasered by security agents when he demanded that they produce a warrant. It is likely that this unnamed caretaker felt responsible for the well-being of Jason as a foreign visitor to Iran, and acted out of a sense of duty to protect his American guest. That he did so while demanding justice for Jason as a citizen of Iran speaks volumes about the expectations of due process that Iranians have of their government.

Given the chance to report on his own arrest, this might well have been Jason’s lede. In his self-effacing style, Jason might tell the story of a working negarban, an ordinary doorman who, under horrible circumstances, made an extraordinary gesture in favor of civility rather than surrendering to the cynicism of paranoia and force. Jason expressed full faith in the future of Iran, and frequently voiced optimism that whatever political, social, and cultural problems they faced, Iranians would find their way forward, within the limitations of their own government and without outside help. I have no doubt that Jason, who was held for 544 days, 100 days more than the hostages were held in the U.S. Embassy starting in 1979, holds the faith still.