A U.S. Journalist’s Arrest Points to a Power Struggle in the Leadership of Iran

Jason Rezaian knew he was being watched. A man on a motorcycle had been following him and his wife for weeks, his colleagues said. The tail was so blatant...

Jason Rezaian knew he was being watched. A man on a motorcycle had been following him and his wife for weeks, his colleagues said. The tail was so blatant that Mr. Rezaian, The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran, had even managed to take a picture of the license plate. Like many foreign journalists accredited by the Iranian authorities, Mr. Rezaian had grown painfully accustomed to being under constant suspicion. Opponents of Iran’s leaders accuse correspondents of soft-pedaling to avoid being expelled, while conservatives inside Iran often call them spies. Some hard-liners even say they should be executed. Jason Rezaian of Washington Post and Wife Still Held.

“It’s like walking a tightrope,” Mr. Rezaian, 38, said in June. “When you fall down, it is over.”

Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested on July 22. (Photo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Jason Rezaian, a reporter for The Washington Post, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested on July 22. (Photo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

TEHRAN — Then on July 22, plainclothes men waving an arrest warrant signed by Iran’s judiciary forced their way into Mr. Rezaian’s apartment, taking him and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, to an unknown location. Aside from one phone call from Ms. Salehi telling her parents that she was at “a party,” they have not been heard from since.

Their arrest and that of another colleague, a photographer who is a dual American-Iranian citizen like Mr. Rezaian, have sent a shudder through the press corps at a time when crucial international talks over Iran’s nuclear program are underway. But they also point to a deep-seated division between Iran’s president and the largely unelected state institutions that hold the real power in this nation.

“This is an embarrassment for the president,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a journalist close to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani.

“Those who arrested them are acting like bulls in a china shop,” said one official with inside knowledge of the case but who was not authorized to speak publicly. The official said he would wait for the results of the investigation to see whether the journalists had engaged in illegal activities, but added, “Even if they did something, this show of strength was unnecessary and counterproductive.” Iran’s judiciary has recently been overseeing a series of arrests of local activists, journalists and Facebook users around the country, often executed by the intelligence arm of the Revolutionary Guards.

But for all the suspicion of foreign reporters, they are usually not the targets of such clampdowns. In Iran, accredited correspondents are free to work in the capital, though they need permission to work elsewhere in the country. They are not subjected to censorship before publication, but articles that Iranian officials feel cross an invisible line can in some cases lead to a temporary or permanent withdrawal of press credentials.

Mr. Rezaian, who had been working for The Washington Post since 2012, was arrested the day his credentials had been renewed. His latest article had been about baseball in Iran.

“Our office has not had any issues with them; they are members of our family of journalists,” said Mohammad Koushesh, the director of the government organization that oversees Iran’s foreign press corps. Mr. Koushesh said that he had asked the judiciary “for news about the journalists, but they are asking us in return to wait for the official accusations to be presented.” He added, “We hope they are released soon.”

Days after the arrests, Tehran’s chief justice, Gholam Hossein Esmaili, implied the journalists were “enemies” but did not specify accusations against them, saying that more interrogations were needed, the state Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

“The security forces have the whole country under surveillance and control the activities of enemies,” he was quoted as saying. “They will not permit our country to become a land where our enemies and their agents carry out their activities.”

The Washington Post said it had not been given any explanation. “Sadly, inexplicably, we continue to hear nothing from Iran about Jason, his wife, Yeganeh, and other detainees,” its executive editor, Martin Baron, said in a statement. “We do not know where he is, we do not know why he is being held, and we know nothing about his health.”

“We can imagine no good reason for him to be held,” he added.

Iran and the United States have made similar arrests before, sometimes on charges of spying or evading international sanctions. A former American Marine, Amir Hekmati, a dual American-Iranian citizen, is currently serving a 10-year sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison under charges of “practical collaboration with the American government.” In 2009, Roxana Saberi, another dual citizen and a journalist, was arrested on accusations of spying and sentenced to eight years in prison, but was later released.

Several Iranians have also been arrested in the United States. In 2013, an Iranian chip expert, Mojtaba Atarodi, was released after being held since late 2011, having been accused of trying to buy equipment for Iran’s nuclear program. In 2013, possibly under a secret deal before the nuclear talks, the United States released four Iranians, including a former ambassador to Jordan, who had been accused of trying to buy night-vision goggles.

It remains unclear whether the arrests of Mr. Rezaian, Ms. Salehi and the photographer — whose family has asked that her name not be published out of fear of derailing negotiations for her release — are in any way connected to the recent arrests of other local activists and journalists in Iran. Mr. Rezaian, the son of an Iranian rug seller and an American mother, grew up in Marin County, north of San Francisco, but moved to Iran in 2004 and lived there on and off. In 2013, he married Ms. Salehi, a reporter who had recently been granted permanent residency in the United States.

“Jason is not a reporter seeking confrontation, and Yeganeh isn’t either,” said a friend in Tehran, asking for anonymity out of fear of those who arrested Mr. Rezaian. “They always meant well, but Jason and Yeganeh loved Iran, its people and culture. Some of their stories drew aggressive reactions from foreign-based Iranian dissidents saying they were too soft on the Islamic Republic. Out of all the journalists here, I never expected this to happen to them.”

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