Bay Area Native Pens Memoir About His 544 Days in Iranian Prison

Journalist Jason Rezaian's interrogator was particularly convinced that a farcical Kickstarter to grow avocados in Iran proved he was a CIA spy.

Jason Rezaian recounts his time in Evin Prison amid nuclear deal negotiations in a new memoir. (Photo courtesy/Anthony Bourdain/Ecco)

Amid the 2009 financial crash, Marin County native Jason Rezaian closed up his Persian rug store on Powell and Sutter streets to begin a career as a foreign correspondent in Iran.

Five years later, the Washington Post reporter’s fate in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison would be intertwined with tense diplomatic negotiations — unseen since the 1979 hostage crisis — to curb the country’s nuclear program. As Rezaian recounts with intimate, lifelike detail in his new memoir Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison, it wasn’t hard for him to connect those dots. He presents his story once again at Books Inc. in Berkeley on Tuesday evening and at noon on Wednesday at the Commonwealth Club.

“It was a power play internally by a faction of the Iranian regime,” Rezaian tells SF Weekly, referring to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ resistance to the nuclear deal. “I think it was designed to be audacious and crazy.”

Like many dual nationals, the American-born-and-raised journalist Rezaian was accused of being a CIA spy attempting to take down the regime. His interrogator, Kazem, took absurd lines of questioning over Rezaian’s 2010 prank Kickstarter to bring avocados to Iran. (“Why would people give other people they don’t know money to try to accomplish meaningless things?” may be a conceptually logical inquiry, but the idea of “Project Avocado” as a nefarious CIA mission surely isn’t.)

Other comical moments, such as Kazem repeatedly assuring Rezaian that he is no “top banana” and saying that he would want Will Smith to play him if Hollywood turns this into a movie, helped him deal with the traumatic circumstances. But Rezaian didn’t see any of this coming — not the threats of dismemberment or beheading, the six straight weeks of solitary confinement, the sham trial, and certainly not turning into a mentally and physically different person under incredible stress.

Both he and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Rezaian, played by the regime’s rules and had their press credentials extended another year on the same 2014 morning that men ambushed them with guns on their way to a surprise birthday party. As the men ransacked their apartment and cut open tea bags, Rezaian thought it was a mistake that would clear up shortly.

It didn’t.

Unlike most other imprisoned dual nationals, business people, and dissidents, Rezaian’s name was known worldwide and thrown at Iranian leaders wherever they went. A trio consisting of his family, the Washington Post, and Anthony Bourdain — who featured him and Yeganeh on Parts Unknown and took Prisoner under his HarperCollins publishing line Ecco — were relentless in keeping his story alive.

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali even called for Rezaian’s release. That day eventually came on Jan. 16, 2016, six months after Iran, the United States, and five other world powers settled on a historic nuclear deal. Less than two years later, President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw from the deal and reinstate sanctions, bringing back the fraught U.S.-Iran relations that existed since 1979.

“I think my situation was the best-case scenario in some ways because of the nuclear negotiations going on,” Rezaian says. “I worry especially about dual nationals. Their stories go out of public view.”

(A few of those dual or foreign nationals awaiting release from Iranian prison include Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, and Michael White.)

Though nightmares about him still in Evin Prison come every so often, Rezaian reports that he and Yeganeh, who was released before him, are healthy and very much in love. Today, he writes for the Post‘s Global Opinions section, where he worked with Jamal Khashoggi before his murder in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey. 

“It’s never going to go away completely,” Rezaian says. “It’s taken an incredible amount of time and work.”

Jason Rezaian, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 7 p.m.,  at Books Inc., 1491 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, booksinc.net; and Wednesday, Jan. 30, noon, at the Commonwealth Club, 110 The Embarcadero, commonwealthclub.org

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