IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

February 21, 2019
The World Cup was over, Germany winning its first world title since 1990. Looking for something else to occupy my attention, this sports-obsessed Iranian American spotted an article in The Washington Post by Jason Rezaian about baseball in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

As a child of an Iranian immigrant growing up in rural Kentucky, American sports were a rite of passage. Even though soccer would eventually become my passion, I quickly fell in love with America’s triumvirate of sporting traditions: baseball, basketball and football.

Rezaian grew up in Marin County, California, just north and across the famous Golden Gate Bridge that spans the entrance to San Francisco Bay. Like me, a child of an immigrant from Iran, he also became infatuated with sports.

Rezaian was almost a teenager when Mark McGuire and Jose Canceco, the Bash Brothers, brought baseball back to the Bay Area. It had been forteen years since Rollie Fingers and Catfish Hunter, two of the best names and mustaches in baseball history, led the Oakland A’s to a World Series victory in 1974.

So, when I saw his article about baseball gaining popularity in my father’s homeland, I got giddy. Here was a new opportunity to build bridges between adversarial nations in what seemed a relatively safe way. For twenty years, the Iranian government, regarding these ties as a way to improve the image of the Islamic Republic and strengthen Iran’s position in international sports circles, had participated in sports diplomacy with the US. Wrestling, soccer and volleyball had been the main fields for people-to-people ties but why not add the American pastime of baseball to that list?

Immediately after finishing the article, I messaged Rezaian on Facebook asking if I could help promote baseball in Iran. Summer Camps? Equipment? Coaching? (At the time, my cousin was married to a college baseball coach who has since gone on to be a hitting coach in the big leagues.)

These two sports-mad Iranian Americans had several exchanges. Then everything went silent. A few days later, it was reported that Rezaian had been arrested.

For Iran-watchers, it was an all too familiar story. Scholar Haleh Esfandiari, journalists Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari, to name a few, had all been imprisoned on bogus charges while visiting or working in Iran. Rezaian’s detention, however, was playing out against the backdrop of high-stakes diplomacy about Iran’s nuclear program. Talks were bearing fruit, with a provisional agreement in place and a more permanent one being hashed out in Europe. 

A faction of Iran’s multi-headed intelligence community had taken Rezaian to try to throw a wrench into the negotiations and pick up a valuable bargaining chip to trade for other US concessions. Rezaian was sucked into a geopolitical chess match. 

In his book about his 544-day ordeal, Prisoner, Rezaian writes that after he spent seven weeks in solitary confinement, being interrogated nearly every day, it was clear that his captors had no real case against him. They were accusing Rezaian of espionage-related crimes, but without evidence. 

In the place of solid information to back their claims, they used their own misperceptions and conspiracy theories. An ill-fated Kickstarter project by Rezaian to bring avocados to Iran was twisted into an example of the Great Satan’s hand in a soft revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic. Kickstarter and avocados must be code words for some Western plot, his interrogators insisted. 

Rezaian’s captors, like those who interrogated Bahari and thought New Jersey was a den of iniquity, seemed particularly interested in supposed sex parties they thought Rezaian had attended in Dubai. If there were any, however, the newly married Rezaian hadn’t gone to them.

The inquisitors, using techniques honed by secret police the world over, took seemingly innocuous phrases from Rezaian’s emails to twist into scenarios that fit their charges. For example, they zeroed in on “radio silence” and were convinced that that, too, was code used by American spies. 

In fact, Rezaian’s only “crime” was his job description—collecting public information and sharing it with Americans through his newspaper. This “crime” was especially egregious because US government officials were among those reading his articles.

Rezaian didn’t play along with their false narrative. And despite the torture of solitary and his fears about what his wife, Yeganeh, and other relatives were going through, Rezaian kept a sardonic sense of humor that may have been his salvation. After one interrogation, his captors mentioned that they had interviewed some of his friends who told them that Rezaian was an excellent singer. When his jailors instructed him to sing, he balked, then summoned up the courage to issue his own orders. 

“Okay, but you have to stand up,” he said to his interrogators. 

They stood. And Rezaian belted out what is likely the first-ever rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner at Evin Prison. His captors clapped when he finished. 

“What was that?” one of his captors asked. “It was very lovely, especially when your voice cracked. Very emotional. So much feeling.”

“That was the American national anthem,” Rezaian told them, “You guys better be careful, you just betrayed the Islamic Republic and paid the ultimate respect to the Great Satan. This is a very big crime.”

Beyond his sense of humor and the absurd, Rezaian credits his wife, brother, and mother for keeping his hopes alive during his time as a hostage. His detention was 100 days longer than what American diplomats endured four decades ago. That original hostage crisis poisons US-Iran relations to this day and presaged the use of kidnapping by Iran and its proxies as a twisted tool of diplomatic pressure and domestic political infighting.

Rezaian’s release coincided with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in January 2016. Remarkably, Rezaian still believes in the power of engagement with Iran as do other former hostages, including retired Ambassador John Limbert. 

But Rezaian’s release was bittersweet. The day he was finally freed from his Kafka-esque detention was also likely the last time he would ever be in Iran. After spending much of his early career as a journalist trying to demystify Iran for the rest of the world, he’s understandably heartbroken.

Prisoner is an emotional roller coaster. It’s a story of perseverance and love, for his wife, his family and despite everything it has done to him, Iran.

Purchase Jason Rezaian’s memoir.

David Shams is an Iranian American writer living in Washington, DC. He is the founder of Bourbon and Chai Media. Follow him on Twitter: @ShamsWriter.

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