Betraying only the slightest emotion, the American mother of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian recounts her just-concluded three-week trip to Iran, during which she managed to see her son twice in prison and proclaim his innocence in more than half a dozen testy meetings with Iranian officials.
It seems her trip bore fruit.
Since her return days ago to Istanbul, where she has lived for nearly two years – at the time she wanted to be close to her newly married son, without hovering – Mary Breme Rezaian was told that his case is finally going to trial. The Tehran prosecutor confirmed Wednesday that the months-long investigation is over, and that Revolutionary Court proceedings will begin.
“I like to think [the trip] was helpful to speed some things along,” Mrs. Rezaian says in the matter-of-fact tone of a staunch advocate.
After nearly half a year in Evin prison – the first 40 days of which were in solitary confinement – Mr. Rezaian is the longest-held Western journalist in Iran. His family is still unaware of the charges against him, which they say were read out for more than eight hours on Dec. 6, but with no lawyer present, only the journalist and a poor official translator.
Iran analysts have speculated that Rezaian is an unwitting pawn in an internal power struggle between the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani and hardliners who oppose his nuclear negotiations with the West and his bid to improve Iran’s relations with the rest of the world.
His case is brought up frequently by senior US officials, who held bilateral meetings in Geneva Wednesday with their Iranian counterparts in advance of nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers due to resume on Jan. 18.
Dashed expectations of release
The family says Rezaian has suffered from chronic health problems and weight loss. It was frustration at the mounting toll on her son’s physical and mental health, compounded by dashed expectations raised in early November by Iranian officials that her son would be freed within weeks, that prompted Mary Rezaian to travel to Tehran last month without any guarantees she would see him.
Jason had been “ecstatic” about the prospect of his release, but he “fell into the depths of despondency after that,” she says.
She was able to see her son – a California native with dual Iranian-American citizenship who has been the Post’s Tehran correspondent since 2012 – both on Christmas Day and on Dec. 30.
Meeting in a room with chairs, a coffee table, and a camera on a tripod recording the conversation, Jason Rezaian told his mother he now had daily access to exercise and fresh air. The second visit, he had not been told he would be meeting his mother, and wore a hoodie for exercise.
“He took that off, and showed me his arms and his abdomen, and said, ‘You can see that I haven’t been tortured,’ ” Mrs. Rezaian recounts. “But he said, ‘I need a head doctor, because this is going on way too long.’ ”
Jason’s wife, Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist, was arrested with her husband and two others on July 22. She was released on bail in October, and until a few weeks ago was allowed to visit her husband in prison, though she has not been able to leave the country.
Summoned by Revolutionary Guard
“He understands the impact this is having on Yegi and her family, and he said, ‘I never wanted to bring harm to anybody,’ and he started crying at that point,” recalls Mary Rezaian. “He feels trapped.”
Soon after Mrs. Rezaian arrived in Tehran she was summoned to meet with the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard – the same branch believed to have arrested the journalist.
She also met with judiciary officials seven or eight times during her trip, but not with members of President Rouhani’s governement. In those meetings, she says, she spoke firmly of her son’s innocence.
In the first meeting, with Revolutionary Guard intelligence officers wearing black shirts, in a non-descript apartment block in a residential area of Tehran, Mary Rezaian said: “ ‘Look, I know my son’s not guilty’ … and I looked him straight in the eye and said: ‘You started this, and you made it big, and now you can’t control it.’ ”
“One of them said: ‘We understand that mothers worry about their sons. My mother would worry about me,’ ” recalls Mary Rezaian. “Which is what I was anticipating, and wanted to capitalize on. But they took the position it was very serious, his actions – whatever his actions were, whatever they are accusing him of.”
Not like Iranian mothers
Those handling her son’s case were clearly uncomfortable with the face-to-face meetings.
“My demeanor was very different, because Iranian mothers tend to weep and wail, beat themselves; I saw a lot of that,” says Mary Rezaian. “My demeanor was: ‘Look, you have my kid, and you don’t have a right to keep him.’ And I looked him square in the eye, which they would not have been used to at all. Some guy in the judiciary is kind of fiddling with papers on his desk, and I get down so I am really in his face – and that’s not my style … It was disorienting for them.”
The reaction from the Revolutionary Guard members in the first meeting was to make their own case.
“I forcefully conveyed my disapproval with their tactics. They gave me a lecture about how they are perceived wrongly in the West, that they do everything by Islamic principles, and the West thinks that they rape and torture, but they do not do that, nor do they waterboard,” says Mrs. Rezaian. “They are obviously extremely impressed with their own cause.”
Her visit 'shook things up'
Mrs. Rezaian says she was not able to deliver copies of a letter she had prepared, asking for leniency from Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei. His office said that only after a conviction could such a letter be received and considered.
But overall, she seems satisfied that her three weeks in Iran made a difference for her son, and for herself.
Before going, Mrs. Rezaian, who has masters degrees in clinical psychology and teaching English as a second language, waged a media blitz, speaking to reporters at CNN, the BBC, France24, and the BBC’s Persian service.
She says the Revolutionary Guard and other officials had seen some of those appearances.
“By my going back there I think that shook things up for them,” she says. “I learned aspects of things I hadn’t understood before. Also, I really got in touch with my ability to be an advocate for my son, in a different way.”