The Twice-Strange Case of The Washington Post’s Jailed Iran Correspondent

(This analysis appeared first on the Times of Israel blog May 30, 2015. On July 23 The Washington Post announced it had petitioned the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to seek the release of the newspaper’s Iran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, the Western journalist held longest by the Islamic Republic.
(UPDATE, Jan. 18, 2016: Rezaian, and four other Americans or dual Iranian-Americans were released from prisons in Iran in mid-January, 2016. A Post editorial, “Free at last; Iran’s release of Jason Rezaian and other Americans ends a gross abuse of justice,”  [January 17], implicitly confirmed the premise of CAMERA’s critique below. It read, in part: “The most honest explanation of his imprisonment came in media accounts that accused him of conspiring to improve [emphasis in the original] relations between the United States and Iran, something that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has sworn to prevent.”
(If Iran’s pretext for imprisoning Rezaian could honestly be explained as his desire to improve U.S.-Iranian relations—not basically to report on newsworthy developments, including Iranian state-sponsored terrorism, Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program, the regime’s brutal suppression of dissidents, genocidal threats against Israel and so on—was that desire journalistically acceptable? Would The Washington Post send a dual U.S.-Israel national to its Jerusalem bureau to file dispatches meant to improve U.S.-Israeli ties?  )

For nine months, Jason [Rezaian] has been in prison for nothing more than writing about the hopes and fears of the Iranian people.”—President Barack Obama at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner April 15, 2015. “I have told [Rezaian’s brother, Ali] personally that we will not rest until we bring him home to his family, safe and sound.”

“Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian went on trial [May 26] on espionage and other charges in a closed Tehran courtroom … but the proceedings were adjourned without any indication of when they would resume. … The semiofficial Mehr News Agency said Rezaian roundly denied having done anything outside the normal activities of a news reporter.”—“Iran opens, adjourns trial of Post reporter,” The Washington Post, May 27, 2015.

Iran’s Star Chamber persecution of Rezaian, 39, The Post’s Tehran bureau chief, raises at least two key questions. One of them has been much discussed, the other virtually ignored.

The first—why was Rezaian, sent to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and reportedly held in solitary confinement and without proper medical care much of the time, arrested? The second—what did he and his Post editors think he was doing in Iran?

As to the first, Post Executive Editor Martin Baron called the espionage charges against Rezaian “absurd.” Restrictions placed on Rezaian’s defense attorney were “Kafkaesque.” Baron said they reflected “the abject unfairness Iran has shown at every turn” in dealing with the reporter.

Trying to explain Rezaian’s detention, a Post news article last summer said “his case looks increasingly like an attempt by hard-liners to embarrass and undermine President Hassan Rouhani, a comparative reformer.” USA Today characterized Rezaian as “a pawn of hard-liners trying to scuttle the nuclear talks” between Iran and the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. The Revolutionary Court handling the case “is controlled by Iran’s clergy and ultimately by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, as is the Intelligence Ministry that brought the charges. … Hard-liners have alleged that Rezaian’s supposed spying was aided by [President Hassan] Rouhani’s nephew, a transparent attempt to embarrass the president …”

Last fall, Executive Editor Baron and Post diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan interviewed the Iranian president at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York City. They wrote that Rouhani, “a relative moderate, expressed optimism that the generally conservative Iranian judiciary would ‘comport itself in a fair manner’ in the case of reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, Iranian journalist Yaganeh Salehi, who was also arrested.” Salehi, released on bail last fall, reportedly will be tried separately on related charges.

Rouhani “has at least a limited mandate from Iran’s supreme religious leader [Khamenei] to pursue a deal that would curb the country’s nuclear program, which the West sees as deeply suspect, in exchange for the lifting of crippling international sanctions. Iranian hard-liners are skeptical of the negotiations and Rouhani’s intentions. That internal political tension has led to speculation that Rezaian’s arrest was an attempt by hard-liners to embarrass Rouhani before his visit to New York and complicate changes for the nuclear accord,” Baron and Gearan reported (“Iranian president discusses jailed Washington Post writer; Rouhani says arrest of journalist is not a sign of internal ltensions,” Sept. 24, 2014 print edition).

One can call for Rezaian and his wife’s freedom without accepting the depiction of The Post reporter as cat’s-paw in a contest between Iranian “hard-liners” in the Revolutionary Guard and courts and “moderates” led by President Rouhani. The search for “moderates” in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Republic has an unhappy history.

It began with that ill-omened, key-shaped cake President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane and his team lugged to Tehran in 1986. Despite repeated mirage-like sightings, including during the presidency of “reformist” Mohammed Khatemi, 1997 – 2005, the hunt for moderate Iranian leaders—like the mythological Argonauts’ quest for the Golden Fleece—still beguiles U.S. journalists and policy makers. Nevertheless, rather than moderates versus hard-liners, a more accurate distinction might be between factions of the same anti-American movement, one favoring stilettos, the other shotguns.

Michael Rubin, author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, would wave off those seeking moderates among Iran’s ruling elite. Rubin has written, “At its heart, the Islamic Republic’s ideology remains as rigid and hostile as the day 35 years ago when revolutionary leader Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini’s followers seized the U.S. Embassy. Everything the Iranian leadership says in Persian and preaches to their public suggests their regular call for ‘Death to America’ is not mere rhetoric” (“Iran’s not-so-hidden hidden agenda,” The Dallas Morning News, Nov. 27, 2014).

Rubin adds that in 2013 “while Western officials hailed [new Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani as a moderate, Iranian leaders recognized him as a die-hard loyalist with a gift for public relations.” His efforts to remake the Islamic Republic’s international image “are window-dr
, meant to distract attention from Tehran’s true aims.”
Dictatorship hidden by human interest

If so, then in regard to the second question—what was Rezaian’s assignment—did he and his Post editors aim to shed light, if flickering and occasional in a dictatorship, on Tehran’s “true aims”?

“In fact,” Baron has said, “most of his coverage focused on the culture and daily life of people in Iran.” In other words, The Post’s Tehran bureau chief was not attempting to expose Iran’s theocratic police state.

According to the newspaper itself and Rezaian’s family, he went to Iran with the intention of showing the country’s best face to American readers. He is said to have wanted to correct what he thought were overly negative U.S. media images of the country and help Post readers recognize what they had in common with ordinary Iranians.

This is an unusual perspective for a foreign correspondent in an enemy capital. Under the rule of its mullahs, Islamic revolutionary Iran is, according to the U.S. government, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. From its support for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon through its assistance to anti-American insurgents planting roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran may well have been involved in the killings of more Americans than al-Qaeda.

Its international surrogate, Hezbollah, has sown carnage not only in its Lebanese home but also Argentina—where it is believed responsible for blowing up the Israeli embassy and Buenos Aires Jewish community headquarters in 1992 and 1994, respectively—and Syria, where it has thousands of gunmen bolstering President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship.

In 2009, Iran’s clerics and their enforcers in the Revolutionary Guard and Basji militia bloodily quashed widespread anti-regime protests. The rulers’ apparent determination to achieve nuclear weapons capability, international sanctions or not, deal or no deal, threatens not only Tehran’s “Little Satan”—Israel—but also its “Great Satan”—the United States itself.

According to The Post, Rezaian, who grew up in California, moved to his father’s Iranian homeland in 2008. He wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle and freelanced for The Post before becoming the paper’s Tehran correspondent in 2012. The Post paraphrased his mother as saying Rezaian relocated “in large part because he felt he could offer a nuanced insight of Iran, which he felt was often vilified in the Western press.

“‘There was so much negativity,’ Mary Rezaian said, explaining her son’s thinking. ‘Every time Iran was on the news, they would show hostile crowds storming the gates of the U.S. Embassy. He felt that people in the United States needed to understand that there’s more to Iran than that history.’”

Of hoped-for moderation from Rouhani’s regime, Rezaian himself said, before being jailed, “I think Iranians, especially in the lower and middle classes, are saying, ‘How can this new administration make things different, other than rhetorically?’

“A big part of that is potential relations with the United States,” including a desire in both countries for “some sort of end to this standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. … At the end of the day there are many more issues of shared importance … that these two countries need to talk about” (“Iranian official confirms detention of Post journalist; No information yet on why he and 3 others were taken into custody,” Washington Post, July 26, 2014).

The same article paraphrased Camelia Entekhabifard, an exiled Iranian journalist, and Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American head of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a federally-funded Washington, D.C. think tank. Each had been imprisoned by Iranian authorities themselves in separate, earlier incidents. They described Rezaian as “a fair and conscientious reporter and said none of his recent stories has been controversial or disclosed sensitive information. ‘He’s very careful,’ Esfandiari said. ‘If you look at his articles, there is nothing in them that would compromise him.’”

Three days later, The Post quoted a statement from Salehi’s parents that declared, “Yaganeh and Jason love Iran and have always tried to show a fair picture of the country in their reporting. … We do not know why they are being held but we are certain they have done nothing wrong and would never do anything against Iran,” (“State Dept. urges Iran to release Post journalist; Jason Rezaian, wife and two others have been detained since last week,” July 29).”
Feature stories over hard news

In The Post’s own words, “the pair has been particularly drawn to feature stories about issues that are not in the news but give readers a taste of modern Iran. Salehi, for instance, recently filed a piece on the controversy ignited by an Iranian imitation of the hit American television series ‘Modern Family.’ One of Rezaian’s most recent reports was about surging enthusiasm in Iran for baseball.

“As one of the few American-born journalists in Iran, Rezaian was keenly aware of the rigorous rules and procedures foreign correspondents must follow to remain accredited as journalists in the country. He and his wife were mindful of the risks of reporting in a country where the news media is tightly controlled, his brother [Ali Rezaian] said.

“ ‘Jason is aware of the rules and what he was licensed to do,’ he said. ‘They respected the process put in place there.’ ”

Rezaian did cover talks between Iranian, the United States and the other P5+1 countries about Tehran’s nuclear programs. He also wrote about, among hard news topics, U.S.-Iranian discussions over Iraq and the two countries’ coincidence of concern over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

But The Post repeatedly gave him the top front of its “The World” pages for features illustrated with large color photographs. These included “In Iran, debate over media intensifies; Rouhani’s push for relative openness runs into familiar opposition by hard-liners” (March 14, 2014). This piece reinforced Rouhani-as-moderate—or relative moderate—imagery. It counterpoised the Iranian president, who has spent his adult life working for the Islamic revolution and whose candidacy Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei permitted, against “hard-line conservatives.”

“In Iran, diminishing hopes for new year; Deep stagnation, high prices are causing many to worry that 1393 will bring even leaner times” (March 20) received similar placement. In it, Rezaian wrote that “despite some progress toward a lastin
g nuclear deal that could potentially end years of crushing sanctions, fiscal growth has been slow, and many here worry that the incoming year—1393 on the Iranian calendar—will bring even leaner times.”

The article “A few days a year; Tehran can breathe easier; As the frenzy of the Iranian capital subsides for the Nowruz holiday, so does the choking pollution” (March 26) noted that “residents taking a staycation in the vast Iranian capital during the Nowruz holiday that began with the onset of spring on March 20 are experiencing a rare break from a particularly harsh urban environment. … Tehran’s infamous traffic has disappeared temporarily and along with it the layer of air pollution that usually hovers over this bowl-like metropolis.”

And his “Despite looming water crisis, many Iranians shrug; Kitchen taps and garden hoses flow freely, depleting groundwater and raising the risk of an already arid country becoming a vast desert” (July 4, 2014) rated the top two-thirds of the first “The World” page, along with a six-inch by six-column color photo and a large map of world water use.

Two weeks after Rezaian’s arrest, The Post’s Baron said, “those familiar with Jason’s work have remarked on his genuine desire to offer insight into Iran’s culture and people, and we can imagine no good reason for him to be held.”

Six days later The Post published an Op-Ed by Rezaian’s mother, Mary Breme Rezaian, imploring Iranian officials to release her son and his wife immediately. She wrote, “from an early age, my son … has been fascinated by his father’s home country, Iran. … The images of Iran that Jason saw in the U.S. media troubled him greatly because he knew how limited and inaccurate most of them were. ‘The American public and their leaders need to see the real Iran, all its parts,’ he once told me.”

When he moved to Iran to work as a journalist, “his aim was to showcase Iran’s untold stories to the West—and to always write nuanced reports. … Iran is a complex and multilayered society that is often misperceived and vilified by the West. My son and daughter-in-law have committed themselves to dispelling many of these misconceptions through their nuanced and fair reporting. And, once released, they will continue to do so in a country they both call home” (“Free my son,” Aug. 13, 2014).

Would The Washington Post send a dual American-Israeli, greatly troubled by what he or she considered limited and inaccurate coverage of the Jewish state and committed to dispelling frequent misperceptions and vilifications of it, to Jerusalem or hire such a freelancer already working there as bureau chief?

Unlikely. A journalist’s job—city hall reporter or foreign correspondent—is warts-and-all coverage; who, what, when, where, why and how in context. The Post gets more than a little of that about Israel from its Jerusalem bureau. It doesn’t run much warts-and-all coverage of the Palestinian Arabs, however. And neither has The Post published much comprehensive, critical news coverage of Iran, from Iran by either Rezaian or his predecessor, Thomas Erdbrink, now The New York Times’ Tehran bureau chief.

The regime obviously impedes such coverage. But that doesn’t make it any less necessary.

Pieces critical of Iran and skeptical of its intentions do appear in The Post, but these are most often editorials, Op-Eds or letters to the editor written outside Iran, not news reports from inside.

Perhaps probing, critical reporting from an Iran on political lock-down under a dictatorship hostile to the West is simply too difficult and dangerous. If so, secondary features interspersed with news articles accentuating positive-seeming rhetoric or gestures can only leave readers with an incomplete, misleading impression. Rezaian’s imprisonment may say more about Iran than The Post’s news coverage of the country did when he was free.

The writer is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. Any opinions expressed above are solely his own. 

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