On February 7th, 2019, the Future of Diplomacy Project (FDP) welcomed Jason Rezaian, an American-Iranian and former Washington Post Tehran Bureau Chief, and his wife Yeganeh (Yegi) Salehi to the Harvard Kennedy School for a discussion moderated by FDP Faculty Chair, Ambassador Nicholas Burns. The discussion centered on Jason’s 544 days in Iranian prison and Yegi’s 72 days of solitary confinement in Iranian prison.

Both guests spoke about the moment when they were captured by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (three days before their planned departure to the United States), the mental and emotional journey that they experienced while in prison, and the sense of hope they maintained throughout their imprisonment.

“My mental health started dying.… It felt like the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were burying you alive,” Yegi Salehi said.

 While experiencing harsh treatment, Rezaian indicated that keeping a sense of humor was key to remaining optimistic for his and his wife’s future.

Reflecting on diplomacy’s role in the U.S.-Iranian relationship, Rezaian and Salehi both stressed the need for resuming diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran. The current U.S. Administration should not have pulled out of the Joint Collective Plan of Action (JCPOA), according to Rezaian.  That decision damaged the United States’ relationships with its allies and Iran, he said. Future U.S. administrations should recommit to upholding the JCPOA.

Rezaian also spoke about the decline of U.S. moral leadership in the world and said, “We must ensure there is legitimacy in the U.S. signature and credibility.” 

Their time in prison had altered their personal and professional trajectories in important ways," both Rezaian and Salehi noted. In addition to continuing their work as journalists, they have committed themselves to advocacy on prison reform and the reduction of the use of solidarity confinement in the United States.

More more information, see an event article written by The Harvard Gazette.

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Imprisonment in a high-security facility in Tehran, a nightmare inconceivable by many, was a horrifying reality for Jason Rezaian. In the former Washington Post Tehran bureau chief’s memoir Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, he recounts in vivid detail his frustrating, preposterous, yet ultimately inescapable predicament. Being imprisoned, he writes, is “not easy, but maintaining a sense of humor becomes essential for survival.” While he provides the gritty, disturbing circumstances of his confinement, the focus of this book isn’t solely on his adversity. Jason’s memoir is as much about his family, his life, his passions and his unique world view as it is about an ordeal that should by no means define him.

In July 2014, Washington Post Tehran bureau chief Jason Rezaian was arrested by Iranian police, accused of spying for America. The charges were absurd. Rezaian’s reporting was a mix of human interest stories and political analysis. Initially, Rezaian thought the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding, but soon realized that it was much more dire as it became an eighteen-month prison stint with impossibly high diplomatic stakes.

While in prison, Rezaian had tireless advocates working on his behalf. His brother lobbied political heavyweights including John Kerry and Barack Obama and started a social media campaign—#FreeJason—while Jason’s wife navigated the red tape of the Iranian security apparatus.  Even Anthony Bourdain, who ultimately would encourage Rezaian to write his story for Bourdain’s imprint at Ecco, helped out. He helped keep Jason in the spotlight by replaying as much as possible the episode of Parts Unknown set in Tehran that Jason helped organize and appeared on. Meanwhile, the Iranian courts used Rezaian as a bargaining chip in negotiations for the nuclear deal.

In Prisoner, Rezaian writes of his exhausting interrogations and farcical trial. He also reflects on his idyllic childhood in Northern California and his bond with his Iranian father, a rug merchant; how his teacher Christopher Hitchens inspired him to pursue journalism; and his life-changing decision to move to Tehran, where his career took off and he met his wife. Written with wit, humor, and grace, PRISONER brings to life a fascinating, maddening culture in all its complexity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jason Rezaian served as Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post and is now an opinion writer for the paper and contributor to CNN. He was convicted—but never sentenced—of espionage in a closed-door trial in Iran in 2015. He lives in Washington, DC, with his wife.