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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

Jason Rezaian, journalist once imprisoned in Iran, shares his experience

Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American and Washington Post writer, spoke about his imprisonment in Iran at an April 10 event at The Fletcher School. 

Rezaian formerly served as the Tehran bureau chief for the Post, where he is now a global opinions writer. After being convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial, he was imprisoned by the Iranian government for 544 days from 2014–16. 

The Persian Students Association organized the event as part of its speaker series with support from the Office of the Provost.

“The Fletcher School has a long and illustrious history of bringing out people who work in international relations and diplomatic fields around the world,” Rezaian told the Daily. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me, and I’m glad to have been asked.”

Rezaian initially decided to report on Iran out of a curiosity for reclusive parts of the world.

“I knew from early on that I wanted to write and tell stories about places that most Americans wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit,” Rezaian said. “When I had the opportunity to go [to Iran] and get to know the place and its people, I found it to be, of course, fascinating, but also so different than how it was portrayed in our news media.”

When he went to Iran, Rezaian quickly found a wealth of stories.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, here’s a good chance for me to do something that will actually add value,’” Rezaian said. “It wasn’t easy to get into, but I spent a lot of time and energy and resources to make myself as valuable a reporter on Iran as possible.”

During the event, Rezaian spoke about how anti-American rhetoric manifests in Iran, despite how many citizens have embraced some American culture and technology. Rezaian also highlighted the nuanced role of women in Iranian society, especially in light of the Woman, Life, Freedom protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in late 2022.

Even though women have been treated as second-class citizens in Iranian society, Rezaian made clear they play a critical role in public life, particularly education, and have carved out their own niches of security in an Islamic society. Rezaian suggested that the abuse women have faced in society, combined with their outsized role, could make them a formidable force for reform.

The conversation turned to Iranian authorities’ 2014 arrest of Rezaian and the broader problem of authoritarian regimes taking journalists as hostages. Rezaian told the Daily he believes his own arrest was related to the contentious nuclear deal negotiations that were going on at the time. 

“I was an American citizen working for a high-profile company that happened to be a news organization,” Rezaian said. “Some elements within the Iranian regime who did not want to see the nuclear deal come to fruition used my arrest … and other outlandish provocations to try and undermine the deal. That didn’t succeed, but I paid a pretty heavy price.” 

During his discussion, Rezaian said that diplomatic hesitancy leads states and media to refer to obvious hostages as “wrongful detainees,” downgrading their status in the public’s eyes.

In his interview with the Daily, Rezaian also drew attention to the current status of journalists imprisoned in other countries, and expressed concern about the future of international reporting, saying it has become “increasingly dangerous in recent years.”

 “We see what’s happened to The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in Russia over the last couple of weeks,” Rezaian said. “I think young journalists need to understand that the rules of engagement are very different than they were.”

Rezaian also acknowledged the disparity in how the United States treats enemy states that take hostages versus allied states, such as Saudi Arabia, that take hostages as well. He said that while the State Department has its own motives for how they handle hostage situations, they still have to do legal due diligence to ensure the charges against the would-be hostages are dismissed. 

Concluding his discussion, Rezaian suggested that the United States should change its attitude toward dealing with Iran.

“We’ve spent 40 years putting real heavy penalties and sanctions on Iran,” he said. “But it’s time for a rethink on how we approach these issues. … What you’re trying to do with economic sanctions is really to get people to rise up, and it never works. It’s much more effective to go after the people in power and their loved ones.”

The current sanctions, according to Rezaian, misdirect blame at ordinary Iranian citizens.

“For a long time, we could make the argument that academia was supposed to be a safe haven and people should be able to come,” Rezaian said. “But when ordinary Iranians are blocked from coming, then it’s a problem. I think we have to reassess how we approach punitive measures against countries that we’re at odds with, and do it in a way that is more directly targeting the bad actors themselves, and figure out ways to empower ordinary people.”

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