Jason Rezaian, journalist freed by Iran, wanted 'to tell the truth' about his father's homeland

Jason Rezaian grew up in the Bay Area, but his father’s home country, Iran, always had a big piece of his heart.

The Marin County native drove around with a California license plate holder that read, “Powered by ghormeh sabzi,” an Iranian dish, his mother, Mary Breme Rezaian, wrote in the Washington Post.

On his 8th birthday, Rezaian’s family got him a passport, hoping he would someday visit Iran. Their wish came true, and then some: He learned Farsi and eventually moved to Iran, where he wrote for publications including the San Francisco Chronicle and penned a blog called Inside Iran.

In 2012, Rezaian became a Tehran correspondent for the Washington Post, writing stories that he hoped would give readers a more nuanced view of a country that fascinated him, the newspaper has said.

Along with stories about international politics and nuclear negotiations, Rezaian also wrote telling portraits of daily life: people flocking to American-style water parks during a scorching summer, the country’s state television broadcasting — and censoring — Hollywood blockbusters like "Gravity" and "Titanic," the proliferation of high-end hamburger restaurants with Route 66 signs and James Dean photos.

“It’s a short escape into a different environment,” Rezaian quoted a burger joint owner as saying in a 2014 article. “Iranians love the American style. The grass is greener in the U.S.”

Rezaian and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for the United Arab Emirates newspaper the National, were arrested at their home in July 2014. Salehi was released on bail about two months later, while Rezaian languished in the country’s notorious Evin Prison in Tehran for 18 months, held on espionage and other charges.

On Saturday, U.S. officials confirmed that Rezaian was one of four U.S.-Iranian prisoners freed by Iran in a prisoner exchange. In return, the United States has offered clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual citizens, convicted in the U.S. or awaiting trial, said a U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. (A fifth U.S. detainee was also freed, but his case was said to be unrelated to the prisoner swap.)

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Rezaian and the Post have long denied the allegations of spying, saying he merely acted as a journalist.

“We couldn't be happier to hear the news that Jason Rezaian has been released from Evin Prison,” Post publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr. said in a statement Saturday. “Once we receive more details and can confirm Jason has safely left Iran, we will have more to share.”

President Obama, in an April speech at the White House Correspondents’ dinner in Washington, said Rezaian had “been imprisoned in Tehran for nothing more than writing about the hopes and fears of the Iranian people, carrying their stories to the readers of the Washington Post in an effort to bridge our common humanity.”

Iran's Fars New Agency, citing an Iranian Revolutionary Guard report on Saturday, said he had been held because of “attempts to help the U.S. Senate to advance its regime change plots in Iran.”

Rezaian’s family could not immediately be reached for comment, but his brother, Ali Rezaian, of Mill Valley, Calif., said Saturday on Twitter that, while he had not yet received “any direct confirmation” that the journalist had been released, “We all hope it is true.”

Before his arrest, Rezaian and his Iranian wife were interviewed in Tehran by Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” program. Rezaian spoke of his deep feelings for his father’s homeland, but also evinced some nostalgia for the United States.

“I’m at a point now, after almost five years now, where I miss certain things about home,” Rezaian told CNN. “I miss my buddies. I miss burritos. I miss having certain beverages with my buddies and burritos at certain types of establishments. But I love it. I love it, and I hate it, you know. But it’s home. It’s become home.”

Rezaian, 39, grew up in Marin County, one of two sons born to an Iranian rug seller and an American mother.

His late father, Taghi Rezaian, came to the United States from Iran as a foreign exchange student in 1959, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. He owned Persian rug stores in Mill Valley and Petaluma, where he was known as a gregarious businessman.

According to the Post, the swimming pool at the Rezaians’ Marin County home “was the hub for the extended family.”

In 1994 Rezaian graduated from Marin Academy, a college preparatory school in San Rafael, where he was captain of the basketball team. He later attended the New School's Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts in New York City.

Rezaian took his first trip to Iran in 2000 and fell in love with the country, moving there in 2008 to become a freelance journalist, according to the Post. In 2013 he married Salehi, an English translator who became a journalist.

“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,” his mother wrote in the Post. “’The American public and their leaders need to see the real Iran, all its parts,’ he once told me.”

His brother, Ali, told the Post that Jason “really wanted to demystify the place, to tell the truth about the people.”

Rezaian has been described by family and friends as an avid Oakland A’s fan, and one of his last stories for the Post, published five days before his arrest, was about Iranian baseball.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

Update

3:42 p.m.: This story was updated with additional background on Jason Rezaian and quotes from Washington Post publisher Frederick J. Ryan Jr.

This story originally published at 1:58p.m.

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