September 28, 2021

An Avocado Revolution | Episode 1

by 544 Days

Background show artwork for 544 Days

Everything was going great for Jason Rezaian. He was The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran. He had just gotten married. Then, in July of 2014, Jason and his wife were arrested and thrown in an Iranian prison.

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Jason Rezaian: Before this show begins, you should know a couple of things. First, it includes some pretty unpleasant descriptions of my, and my wife's, experiences in an Iranian prison. Second, there's a lot of cussing. OK, here we go. 

Jason Rezaian: Solitary confinement wasn't something I was ever going to get used to, I knew that immediately. The room I was in was tiny. Long enough to lie down in, but too narrow to stretch out my arms. The walls were faux marble and they were always cold. There were sounds that seemed designed to never let me sleep: the noisy grinding of a fan, a sink with a faucet that dripped and dripped and dripped constantly, lights that never turned off. I knew all these things were designed to keep me awake and fuck with my head. Breaking me down, along with any will to resist. Confusion becomes fear, becomes desperation, becomes hopelessness. But all that takes a while. At first, I was just trying to make sense of a very foreign routine. 

During my first few weeks in a prison in Iran, my guard would open the door of my cell every day and lead me to the interrogation room. My interrogator was named Kazem. Whatever you picture when you think of an interrogator, that's not Kazem. He wasn't a big guy. Five eight, five nine, narrow shoulders, glasses, receding hairline—completely nondescript Iranian dude. If it was just him and me, I was sure I could take him. I know it sounds nuts, but after a couple of weeks I actually started to look forward to seeing Kazem. He was my only human contact. So I tried to make the best of it, tried to connect with him. He, on the other hand, was doing his job, which was the torment me. He'd repeat the same ridiculous questions over and over. Why don't you just confess? We know you're a spy. Why else would you have written emails to government officials? I kept telling them I was a reporter. That didn't satisfy him. After a while, the questions stopped sounding so bizarre because I started to view them as the obstacle between me and freedom, like a code I had to crack. But it turned out there was no right answer. Or if there was, I didn't have it. 

Wendy Sherman: We were all astonished that Iran would have imprisoned a Washington Post correspondent. 

Carol Morello: For our way of thinking, it makes no sense. Why would you take a journalist? 

Ali Rezaian: I knew that you weren't digging around into anything you shouldn't have been. You were following the rules. 

Jason Rezaian: I’m Jason Rezaian and this is 544 Days. That's how much time I spent as a hostage in Iran. 544 days sitting in prison wondering when or if anyone would come to my rescue. For a while, I wondered if they even knew I was still alive. This show was about what it took to get me out and the people who made it happen: my family, my employer, people with the highest levels of the US government. And for them, it couldn't have come at a worse time. 

Ben Rhodes: I remember just sitting there and thinking, fuck, they'd never gone this far before. 

John Kerry: The Middle East was heading towards war. 

Denis McDonough: These are like world-class goons. 

David Bowker: It was like there was this massive hurricane of geopolitical forces and your case was whirling around in the eye of that storm. 

Jason Rezaian: In this first episode, I'm going to tell you how I went from being the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief to getting interrogated by smelly guys with beards about avocados. Yeah, ava-fucking-cados. I got detained in 2014, but first let me take you back to 2009, that's when I moved to Iran. For years, I had dreamed of being a reporter and I finally decided to go all in. It might sound a little reckless to drop everything and move to Iran. To me, it felt like my clearest path to a career as a foreign correspondent. I didn't have the time or the patience to climb the rungs of the local newspaper, but I knew a lot about Iran. So going that actually seemed like a smart career move. Most American journalists would just parachute in for big state-sponsored events. But by the end of the year, I was the only one who still lived there. Because my dad was from Iran, I had dual citizenship. I grew up around Iranians and I knew the language which allowed me to get out in the street and talk to people. That give me a pretty unique perspective. Instead of writing about another one of the Supreme Leader's many speeches, I'd write about a guy in the crowd who was forced to attend that speech and was bummed out because he had to miss a big soccer match. I wrote pieces about artists defying the authorities, musicians who played bluegrass and heavy metal, filmmakers who made movies about transgender people. Another big thing happened to me that year. I met someone: Yegi. Before I moved to Iran, I'd never really thought about marriage, but all that changed the moment I saw Yegi. This incredible and beautiful light walked in the room and grabbed all of my attention. More than a decade later, she hasn't let go. 

Jason Rezaian: What would you think that first night that we met? 

Yegi: Seriously, we have to talk about that? I mean, what did you feel? 

Jason Rezaian: I feel like I knew from the second that I saw you that I wanted to know you. 

Yegi: I mean, you were cute. A little bit disheveled. So I thought to myself, oh, my God, I have to revamp his style. 

Jason Rezaian: How long did that take? 

Yegi: Forever. We are still working on it. [laughs]

Jason Rezaian: So I was in love. But I promised you a story about avocados. So let's get to that. I grew up in California, and there are a few things I love more than a good burrito. When I moved to Tehran, I discovered Garcia's, a Mexican restaurant. It was probably the only authentic Mexican restaurant for thousands of miles in any direction. The owner, Janet Garcia, grew up in Mexico. For me, eating at Garcia's like going home. Only one thing was missing: guacamole. That's because there's no avocados in Iran. 

David Lang: I thought that was so funny. Why isn't there any avocados? That's kind of an interesting question. 

Jason Rezaian: That's my friend David Lang. I told him about Garcia's when I was home in California in 2010 for a visit. 

David Lang: I thought this is a great story and this is a really humanizing way to talk about life in Tehran and who Jason is, even better.

Jason Rezaian: David's a tech entrepreneur now, but at the time he was just a guy with ideas. He had one that he thought would help me get some more attention for my writing. 

David Lang: And so that's where the seed of the Kickstarter project really came from. 

Jason Rezaian: A Kickstarter project. Remember, this was 2010, so crowdfunding was kind of new. David and I came up with a Kickstarter that would raise money for Iran's first avocado farm. We called it the Iranian Avocado Quest. We filmed the video to go with it in my parents' kitchen. 

[clip of Jason] And one of the many troubling things that I saw in Iran this year, or didn't see, was the fact that there's no avocados to be had in inside the Islamic Republic. And I want to get to the bottom of that. 

Jason Rezaian: I didn't really plan on becoming an avocado farmer. But it wasn't just a joke either. I was a freelance writer, so it was always hustling for story ideas and readers, and sometimes you have to make people laugh to get them to think. Were there no avocados in Iran because sanctions made it hard to import the seeds? Had some cleric deemed the avocado not halal? Or was there just no demand because Iranians hadn't discovered guacamole yet? 

David Lang: It just all kind of fit as this funny, interesting story that could be a hook to pull people in to telling some of the bigger stories that you wanted to tell. 

Jason Rezaian: The bigger goal was to get Americans to perceive Iran through a different lens, as a country that was filled with smart people who were curious about the wider world, people who were welcoming to Westerners, especially Americans. The Iranians I knew were people who would love guacamole if only they had the chance to try it. 

[clip of Jason] I propose is to bring the avocado to Iran. And there's going to be a lot of hurdles involved. A lot of roadblocks— 

David Lang: The question of whether this was a dangerous thing, like this, was doing this avocado Kickstarter project putting you at risk was very much a concern of mine at the time. However, your confidence about it and your reassurance that this will be fine was enough to sway me to go along with it. And I wish I would have been more concerned, to be honest with you. 

Jason Rezaian: We posted the Kickstarter with a $10,000 goal. But it only ended up getting a little over $2,000. We weren't going shopping for farmland any time soon. In the meantime, I went back to Iran. I was getting assignments from places like Time, Slate, San Francisco Chronicle. Things were going well for me as a freelancer. A couple of years passed. And then The Washington Post got in touch. They needed a new Tehran correspondent. I was thrilled. It finally felt like I had made it. In the interview process, one of the editors even asked about the Avocado Quest Kickstarter. They thought it was funny. And in the end, they offered me the job. A year later Yegi and I got married. Now I had a wife and a serious job. At age 37 I finally had the answer to the question, what are you going to do when you grow up? Yegi, it earned a Masters in English translation and was also building a career as a reporter. When we got married, she was the Tehran correspondent for Bloomberg News. Like I said before, it was really important to me to write not just about the Iranian regime, but also about real people. And the one thing everyone can relate to is what real people eat. So I wrote about upscale burger joints popping up all over Tehran that we're knocking off American brands like Five Guys. I wrote about the free food given out during Shia Islam's holiest month and the website some enterprising young Iranians built to map the best food. Stories like that caught the attention of readers I didn't know I had. 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] That's what I've been waiting for, that's the crispy rice at the bottom. 

Jason Rezaian: Over time, I cultivated a small but growing side hustle, showing visiting TV crews around Tehran. 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] Right there, the, what's it's called? Tahdech?

Jason Rezaian: Which is how Yegi and I ended up on Anthony Bourdain's show Parts Unknown. 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] Tahdig. 

[clip of Yegi] Exactly. 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] Lovely. Merci. 

Jason Rezaian: We met Tony and his crew at a restaurant with a fabulous view of Tehran and terrible food. It was June of 2014. 

[clip of Anthony Bourdain] Do you like it? You're happy here? 

[clip of Jason] Look, I am at a point now after five years where I miss certain things about home. I miss my buddies. I miss burritos. But I love it. I love it and I hate it, you know. But it's home. It's become home. 

Jason Rezaian: Six weeks after we taped that segment with Bourdain, Yegi and I were going out to a surprise birthday party. It was the night of July 22nd, 2014. We'd called two taxis, one for us and one for a friend. Under her long coat and headscarf, my wife was dressed up. She was wearing makeup and a short blue dress—not exactly conforming with the Islamic Republic's strict rules for female modesty. And Yegi suspected that something was up. 

Yegi: Our doorman at the main gate called my cell phone and said, Mrs. Rezaian, your two taxis are waiting for you downstairs. He never called. None of them ever called us on my cell phone. So that was like alarming to me. 

Jason Rezaian: Yegi thought the doorman was trying to give us a sign, so she decided to practice a little tradecraft. We've been watching a lot of Homeland that summer. 

Yegi: I knew something weird is happening. Also, I put a little bit of color, less lipstick on our doorknob. And I put it there and I was thinking to myself, if we will be gone for a few hours and we come back, if someone touches our doorknob, I can feel it. But we were not gone for a few hours. 

Jason Rezaian: We locked up and headed downstairs in the elevator. When the doors opened in the parking garage, there were two guys standing there. One of them was pointing a gun right at me. Without even thinking, I reached into my pocket. 

Yegi: You were trying to take her phone out and I thought, you have a gun. So they, they got physical with you. I was hoping that they don't hit you or anything because those motherfuckers don't have mercy on anyone. 

Jason Rezaian: They didn't hit me, but they did knock the phone out of my hand and force their way into the elevator. They waved around an arrest warrant too fast for us to get a good look at it. They were taking us back up to the apartment. They made us sit down on opposite sides of the couch while they ransacked our home. Yegi quietly showed me something while they flipped our furniture over and took our computers: the key to our storage unit in the garage. The storage unit that was full of alcohol, which is illegal in Iran. 

Yegi: I said, I need to use the restroom, I need to use the restroom, I need to use the restroom. So I went in there, the guy stood outside. I obviously turned the tap on, um, and then took the key out of my chain and quietly put it down in the toilet and I'm flush, and then turned the tap off and came back.

Jason Rezaian: Our hard earned stash of booze, 20 bottles of hard stuff, a case of wine and about 150 bottles of beer—probably gone forever. But I knew that owning that liquor was the only crime we committed. Coming up, Yegi and I meet our captors, and they have some questions for us. 

Yegi: They asked if I knew what the avocado revolution was. And I said it's not like that, there wasn't any of avocado revolution or crisis or anything. I mean, it's a fruit, and he really, honestly wanted to bring this fruit to Iran, the way banana came 20 years ago. Or Kiwi. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Night was falling when they put Yegi and me in an unmarked van. They handcuffed me, took my glasses, and without them I can't see shit, but they didn't know that. And then they blindfolded me. 

Jason Rezaian: Did you think that we were going away for a few hours or for a long time? 

Yegi: Yes and no. You never know. I mean, I knew that we were in deep trouble, but obviously I was trying to be hopeful and say, no, no, no. Maybe a week, 10 days, something like that. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yegi grew up in Iran. So based on a lifetime living under that regime, she naturally took a pessimistic view. I figured we'd be out in a matter of hours. Evin Prison is a massive compound on the edge of Tehran at the base of a mountain, one of the most beautiful views of the city. If there wasn't a prison there, it would be prime real estate. It's surrounded by towering cement walls topped by barbed wire. Evin has become notorious in Iran and around the world. It's where political prisoners and hostages are taken to rot. There's an execution yard right there on the grounds. International NGOs accuse Iran of committing serious human rights abuses there. And it was only two miles from where Yegi and I lived. When we arrived at the prison, they split us up immediately. They took Yegi to the women's section. 

Yegi: They took me to an extremely dirty cell. They brought me those dirty prison clothes, which they were not washed after the last person finished with them. They made me change. They took my wallet because I remember I had my wallet with me. They made me take all my jewelry stuff out, wash my makeup, and then they put me in front of a camera and took a few mug shot from me. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And then she was blindfolded and they took her to the ward's infirmary. 

Yegi: So they immediately put me on a scale, weigh me, took my blood pressure, made me fill a bunch of forms in the doctor's office, like, what are your precondition existing, like this type of thing. So all of this took like two hours. Yeah. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And I was still blindfolded. They took me to a room where I could tell there were other people, someone was introduced as "The Great Judge." He said he knew everything about me. I was a spy. I worked for the CIA. If I confessed to everything, I could go home tonight and then I'd become their spy. It was so absurd that I couldn't help but laugh. Then they let Yegi down a corridor to the room I was in. I couldn't see her because I was blindfolded, but I knew she was there. 

Jason Rezaian: You said to me, I'll never forget this, you said, I'm wearing prison clothes. You're not wearing prison clothes. 

Yegi: I said they already made me change to prison clothes means I'm staying. What about you? 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Yegi knew that changing into prison clothes meant that she wasn't going to be leaving that night. So what about me? Would I have to go home without her? After about two minutes, they pulled Yegi back out of the room. It was my last contact with her for a very long time. And then the Great Judge asked me a question, what is this avocado project? We know what it is. We know that this is CIA code. So I tried to explain Kickstarter. I tried to explain the project. They wouldn't let go. 

Jason Rezaian: Did they ever ask you about the avocado project? 

Yegi: Yes, but not that night. Like a few days later. They asked if I knew what the avocado revolution was, and I said, I have no idea. I have to be honest for like 20 seconds, I couldn't even remember what avocado is. But I eventually remembered because you told me about it and I said, it's not like that. There wasn't any avocado revolution or crisis or anything. I mean, it's a fruit. In fact, the Iranians don't know what to do with it, but Jason makes a nice salad out of it. And he really honestly wanted to bring this fruit to Iran, the way Banana came 20 years ago. Or kiwi. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: As the weeks and months went by, this four-year old failed Kickstarter kept coming up again and again in my interrogations, until they literally brought me an avocado. And they're like, we bought two of them. Here's one for you. We tried the other. It's fucking disgusting. It turned out that around the same time we made that Kickstarter video, there were articles in the American press about a secret program to gather intelligence in hostile countries, including Iran. Its codename: avocado. 

David Lang: If you Google "Project Avocado," what comes up is the Obama administration's CIA plan to, you know, monitor regimes in other countries. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: That's my friend David Lang again. And it's true, Google it. A Wikipedia page comes up about secret surveillance. But I have no idea if my captors had heard about this or if they connected it to me. It's just a crazy coincidence. 

[clip of Jason] There might be sanctions to bringing avocado trees to Iran. There might not be conditions conducive enough to grow avocados. Who knows? 

David Lang: When I think about the avocado project, we started it with this sense of it's so crazy, it just might work. It's got the absurdity as this shield that no one could accuse us of really any wrongdoing. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Even though the Kickstarter kept coming up, it became obvious very quickly that this was never about avocados. There was a whole constellation of forces inside and outside of Iran that led to my arrest. At the time, no one knew that. Nobody on the outside knew exactly why we were being held. And the Iranians weren't saying much. 

[news clip] Detained in Iran but their whereabouts still unknown, 38-year old Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi were taken into custody on Tuesday evening. For its part, the U.S. State Department has said they are aware of the report, but have not commented further. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: I had my own theories about why Yegi and I were locked up, which we'll get to. But for the time being, I was sealed off from the outside world. Around midnight on the night we were arrested, my captors made me change into prison clothes, basically light blue pajamas and a pair of slippers. They put me in a cell eight feet by four feet, no bed, just a dirty piece of rug. On the ceiling, there was a fluorescent light that was never turned off and the fan that made a crazy amount of noise. I didn't sleep at all that night. I couldn't stop worrying about Yegi. Whatever this was about, I was sure that I was the reason Yegi was in prison right now. I tried to tell myself this would all end soon. To be honest, it was too early to be really scared. I was disoriented, kind of flabbergasted. What I couldn't know, what I didn't find out until much later was that wheels were already turning that would set in motion months of behind-the-scenes maneuvers, secret talks and public pronouncements. I was just a reporter, but I was about to become the story, or at least a major character. 

[clip of President Obama] We are not going to relent until we bring home our Americans who are unjustly detained in Iran. Journalist Jason Resi—Razaian should be released. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Obama always struggled with my name. Anyway, all this was happening while the US and Iran were negotiating the nuclear deal, the same deal that Trump pulled out of in 2018. 

[clip of President Trump] We knew all that this a horrible deal in every way. We got nothing in that deal. We got our hostages back and now we find out what we actually paid for the hostages and it was in cash. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: Whenever you hear people on Fox News talking about pallets of cash going to Iran, they're talking about the deal that got me out of prison. As it turns out, my freedom ended up becoming part of what was being negotiated. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: In this show, I'm going to introduce you to the main players in the Obama administration who spent many months hashing out that deal. My fate was riding on whether those folks could get these two countries to come to an agreement, two countries that had seen each other as enemies for decades. This is a story of dedicated public servants juggling unbelievably complicated circumstances. 

John Kerry: Nuclear is nuclear. There can be no compromises. 

Wendy Sherman: What do we owe to people like Jason Rezaian languishing in Evin prison? 

Ben Rhodes: If you don't get this unstuck at the airport, everything else could fall apart. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: It's also a story about a newspaper, The Washington Post, forced into a really uncomfortable situation. 

Marty Baron: There was some concern that if we made a big issue out of it at the time, that the Iranians would think they had some sort of prize. And we didn't want them to think that they had a prize. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: And the story about the Rezaians, just the average American family from California thrust into the middle of a hostage negotiation. 

Ali Rezaian: The deal could have not happened. So, again, if it's like, well, is there going to be a deal? Well, there can't be a deal unless Jason gets out. What if the whole thing falls apart then, then Jason doesn't get out. 

Mary: My fear was that you might have a heart attack or stroke because of the stress. 

Jason Rezaian, narrating: I'm one of the lucky ones. I got out. There's still others like me in Iran and a lot of other places. This show is also about what it'll take to get them out. And if, God forbid, someone you love ends up behind bars in a hostile place, be prepared for the question we all ask when we come home: the fuck were you doing to get me out? And you better have a damn good answer.