“We have police. They arrest girls or women for having bad hijab or not being covered enough. But it’s not that we live with the police in our head. You know?” Those famous last words were pronounced by Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian journalist, in an interview alongside her husband, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian — who is a dual Iranian-American citizen raised in California — for CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” in 2014. Bourdain offered that the Iranians he met were super-friendly people with a strong sense of hospitality.
Rezaian and Salehi now have the police in their heads. Six weeks after the interview, Iranian authorities stormed into the couple’s home and arrested them and a freelance journalist. For 10 months, Rezaian has been confined in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, unable to communicate with the world. On Tuesday, he went to trial — a secret tribunal really, as his wife, mother and editor were not allowed to attend — on what appear to be trumped-up charges. His lawyer, Leila Ahsan, is not allowed to talk to the media about what happened in court.
“The Iranians are not subtle,” brother Ali Rezaian told me. “If they have evidence against somebody, they do not hide it for 310 days.”
“People are proud,” Jason Rezaian had told Bourdain. “The culture is vibrant. People have a lot to say.” This son of California staked his future on Iran’s future, only to smack into the real power in Tehran. As his brother told me, authorities talk up Iranian sovereignty and then break their own country’s laws with impunity when it suits them.
Americans have seen this game before. In 2009, three U.S. hikers wandered (or were enticed) over the Iranian border. Tehran released the woman in 2010 but held on to the men for more than two years. The same judge who is trying Rezaian sentenced the University of California, Berkeley graduates to eight years for espionage. Later, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad released the men the day before he was scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly — after the sultan of Oman generously paid $500,000 of “bail” per hiker.
American journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years in 2009. Iran released her after 100 days; she says she still doesn’t know why authorities detained her. In 2011, Iranian authorities arrested Amir Hekmati, a dual citizen who served in the U.S. Marines, when he went to Iran to meet his relatives for the first time. Tried for espionage, Hekmati originally was sentenced to death; the punishment later was reduced to 10 years on lesser charges. In 2013, a Revolutionary Court sentenced Saeed Abedini, a naturalized American from Idaho, to eight years for establishing underground churches in homes.
According to conventional wisdom, hard-liners who want to undermine President Hassan Rouhani during international nuclear negotiations are behind the Rezaian prosecution. Mayhap it would be wrong for Foggy Bottom to demand Rezaian’s release as a precondition for an international accord. But Ali Rezaian doesn’t think it’s that simple. He told me, “At different times, it’s been different things, and it’s never been one thing.”
“I personally think the politics are so opaque in Iran that I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to who’s behind it,” opined Hoover Institution foreign policy fellow Kori Schake. “This could just be the regular functioning of their government.”
In a way, it doesn’t matter why. Rezaian’s trial tells Americans everything they need to know: Unless the government abandons this cruel charade, Iran cannot be trusted. The people of Iran may be gracious and open, but their government is ruthless and terrifying.
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