Jason Rezaian: Previously, on 544 days:
Brett McGurk: They said they're open to a prisoner exchange and they dropped a stack of names, which was completely ridiculous.
Wendy Sherman: Do they not understand that The Washington Post is not going to sleep until Jason Rezaian and Yegi Rezaian are free?
[clip of President Obama] The notion that I'm content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails. That's nonsense.
Jason Rezaian: It was the second week in September 2015, more than a year into my imprisonment, when Kazem told me I was about to be set free. I'd be getting out. He said I was being traded for 20 Iranian prisoners in the U.S. and that President Rouhani was going to fly me back to New York on a government jet. I had absolutely no reason to believe him. A few days earlier, they'd threatened to add two years to my sentence because of something my mom supposedly did. I told Kazem, maybe when pigs fly. Maybe I should have used a more halal expression. Kazem gave me a confused look. I had to explain that when pigs fly, meant bullshit. But he swore to God this was the plan, at least the plan right then. What a piece of shit.
I felt like a window was closing for me. The nuclear deal had been signed in July and that had started a clock running, all moving towards what's called implementation day, when the deal would actually go into effect. I knew from watching Iranian TV the implementation was set for January 2016, four months away. And as the weeks passed after Kazem's promise, all I could think about was that shrinking window and the distinct possibility that if I didn't get out by January, I might never get out. I'm Jason Rezaian, and this is 544 Days. Episode 7: the time to free me slips away, the forces working against me reached new levels of absurdity.
When I got arrested, Marty Baron already had his hands full. He was the Executive Editor of The Washington Post. And in the newspaper business, he is a pretty famous guy. But in 2015, he became Hollywood famous thanks to a movie called "Spotlight."
[Spotlight] I'm sorry. What was the name again?
[Spotlight] Baron. B a r o n.
[Spotlight] Are you familiar with Spotlight?
[Spotlight] No, not particularly.
[Spotlight] Well. We are a four-person investigative team. Once we settle on a project, we could spend a year or more investigating it. Is that a concern?
[Spotlight] Not necessarily.
Jason Rezaian: As played by Liev Schreiber, Marty was the ultimate dedicated editor for a team of reporters at the Boston Globe uncovering child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Spotlight came out in the fall of 2015. There was instant Oscar buzz, and Marty took full advantage of all the attention.
Marty Baron: You know, I wore the pin, the ‘Free Jason’ pin, everywhere.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That's the real Marty Baron.
Marty Baron: And look, you're in the middle of a movie that has all these celebrities attached to it, and you may as well take advantage of every opportunity you can get.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: There are photos of Marty posing on the red carpet, with Liev Schreiber, wearing the ‘Free Jason’ pin. Marty also wrote some pretty spicy editorials in the post calling for my release. But he says the tone evolved over time.
Marty Baron: We didn't want to be so belligerent that the Iranians would just say, you know, they're not going to do anything and they're offended by what we were saying. But over time, you know, it became clear that we should be even more and more forceful and that there was just no reason to scale it back because nothing was having any impact.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Back in August 2015, my editor, Doug Jehl, told Marty about a chance to meet with one of Iran's most powerful men. Marty jumped at the opportunity. The guy's name is Ali Larijani. At that time, he was the speaker of Iran's parliament, and he was in New York for official U.N. business. The meeting between Marty, Doug and Larijani was set to take place at the hotel where the speaker was staying. But before it happened, the Iranians held a presser. It's pretty common. On the rare occasion that Iranian leaders come to the U.S. they do whatever they can to get American media attention. It's the best way to advance whatever agenda they're trying to sell to the world. So Marty went to the scrum.
Marty Baron: And I posed a question about your case during that session. After the meeting was over, I was informed by their spokesman that they weren't going to meet with us because I had already asked about it. Their press spokesman was insistent that they were finished. There wasn't going to be another meeting and that somehow that I had crossed the line because I asked a question about your case in this forum, which somehow maybe they had an expectation that it wouldn't be raised.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: But you don't become the head of one of the most important newspapers in the world and get movies made about you by taking no for an answer. So Baron kept at it with the Iranian press spokesman.
Marty Baron: And so, you know, we were accompanied down to the lobby and Doug and I pressed him very hard on this and we asked him to please go up and talk to Larijani again. I'm sure it didn't make him the most popular guy, but he went up again.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: This time it worked. Larijani agreed to meet with them. Doug and Marty went up to his room.
Marty Baron: I would say they let us about five feet into the room. It's not like, come on in, have a seat or anything like that. Larijani was standing at the entrance. And so we made the case.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was pretty standard stuff at that point. They said I was a good journalist, only doing my job, there was no basis for holding me and I should be released immediately.
Marty Baron: It lasted, well, it was less than 10 minutes for sure. And he indicated that he understood and his remarks, which were brief, you gave us some hope that, in fact, that it might be resolved fairly promptly. And then we left.
Jason Rezaian: I don't want to botch this part, but I think you told me after my release that while you were waiting, the press guy said that how fond of me he was, and you offered him something.
Marty Baron: Yes, I did. That's correct. We had, we had, you know, Free Jason pins and I offered him the Free Jason pin. And I asked him whether he wanted to wear it. And he looked petrified. But I, you know, I probably shouldn't have been joking around at the time, but I just, I couldn't help myself because, you know, I mean, they all, they all said they liked you. You know, that's the thing is, they all said how great you were and what a great person you were and you were a friend of theirs. And so I said, well, great. If you are so fond, here's a, maybe, would you like to wear a Free Jason pin?
Jason Rezaian: And now it's in the National Archives, probably in Tehran.
Marty Baron: Let's put it this way, he did not put his fingers on that pin.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Marty walked away thinking he'd scored a point for me.
Marty Baron: After the meeting with Larijani, we had some hope that maybe this will get resolved. And then it actually seemed to get worse.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Suddenly, Iran reverted to a familiar, and not so diplomatic tone: more ‘great Satan’ than great compromise. All the major Iranian players started a full force, anti-American media campaign.
[clip of Rep. Price] Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini doubled down once again, calling the United States the Great Satan.
[news clip] Ayatollah Khamenei is also ruling out any other further negotiations with the United States beyond nuclear issues, dampening some hopes that the nuclear deal would somehow lead to closer ties between the US and Iran.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was brinkmanship by Iran, a play for leverage. None of it looked good for me.
Marty Baron: And then there were these statements being made by Iranian political figures that seemed to suggest that maybe he could not only be in prison, but that he could be executed. And we couldn't do anything about it. We couldn't go. We couldn't participate in the trial. We asked. And yeah, you thought the worst could happen? So yeah, there were, there were moments where it definitely got worse, where we kind of lost—I wouldn't say we lost hope—but we were sort of despairing.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: But Marty continued on, writing and speaking and questioning.
Marty Baron: We wanted to become an annoyance. We wanted to become pests. We wanted the Iranians to feel like they're sick of hearing about Jason Rezaian.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Around the same time that Marty was insisting on that meeting with Larijani, my brother Ali got on a plane to Geneva. He was on a mission to take my case to the United Nations. His travel companion was Dave Bowker, the lawyer from the last episode. The two of them went to deliver a petition to a U.N. working group to make the case that I was being arbitrarily detained. That's official speak, by the way, for being held hostage. Here's Dave:
Dave Bowker: And we organized a bunch of meetings with important member states to give them reports and to make asks of them and to try to make use of this litigation in the U.N., and it was a really extraordinary experience because the Iranians were so focused on us while we were there. It was actually sort of troubling.
Ali Rezaian: We at one point noticed that there was a group of people who, you know, looked like they were Iranian.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That's my brother, Ali.
Ali Rezaian: And it became clear that they were following me and David around.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: These guys weren't just following Ali and Dave discreetly. They were making themselves really obvious.
Dave Bowker: Your brother and I would sit and talk and there'd be somebody literally like over behind the planter with a telephoto lens trained on your brother or trained on me.
Ali Rezaian: You know, we noticed that they were kind of set up looking at our group so that they could see us. So there was a TV crew, with long-range lenses that were taking pictures of us.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: The Iranian Spies Like Us routine didn't just stop there. They followed Ali and Dave around the cavernous hallways of the U.N. from one meeting to another.
Ali Rezaian: We go into these meetings for 15, 20 minutes, come outside, the guys would be like, literally like hiding in the gift shop behind the little U.N. tchotchkes waiting for us to come out of the room and then walk away so that they could see who we were meeting with. And you know, that kind of pissed me off.
Dave Bowker: It was all very deliberate on their part. They know how to do things inconspicuously and this was the opposite of that. And so I think it was intended to intimidate. And it did. It certainly did intimidate.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Ali wasn't just going to take this shit lying down. After all, he wasn't some lawyer or U.N. diplomat.
Ali Rezaian: When I saw them taking pictures of us from across the room, the first thing I did was like, flip them off, and like, just started looking at them. And, you know, the NGO guys that I was there with were saying, they shouldn't be doing that. I'm like, Fuck them. We're not in their shitty country, we're in Switzerland, at the U.N. Fuck them! And oh, by the way, they're pretending to be a press organization when actually all they are is a bunch of spies.
Dave Bowker: Your brother, [laughs] your brother pulled out his phone and videoed them and took pictures of them. I tried to discourage that on the ground that if we wanted the protection of U.N. security, it would be best not to be doing the same thing back.
Jason Rezaian: Yeah, I think Ali has some experience with Iranians, and knows that "I know you are, but what am I" is a very powerful legal defense in their system?
Dave Bowker: At one point I was telling him what I thought he should do, and he laughed and he said: you're not my lawyer, you're my brother's lawyer.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Luckily, Ali didn't end up needing a lawyer on that trip. But back in Tehran, I definitely could have used every lawyer I could get. In mid-October, when I'd been held for about 450 days, Iran's judiciary announced that I'd been convicted.
[news clip] Breaking news on the American reporter being held in Iran for more than a year on spying charges.
[reporter] Jason Rezaian has been convicted, although the details of his verdict remain unclear.
[news We do know that a sentence has been handed down for Jason Rezaian. We don't know what that sentence is.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Neither did I. The court never notified me or my lawyer about a conviction or a sentence. I'm not even sure they ever officially handed one down, but that didn't stop it from becoming part of the public narrative in Iran and the U.S.. I sank into a deep helplessness. The trial was over. Kazem stopped coming to see me. It was just silence. Over and over, I thought, what if I don't get out before the nuclear deal is implemented? What if the negotiators stopped pushing for my release? Kazem's promise of freedom was clearly meaningless. In December, I told Yegi that I wanted to catch just a glimpse of 2015 as a free man. I knew it was possible. I was sure of it. I had to be sure of it. But as the months dragged on, there were still no concrete signs. A week before Christmas, I sat in my cell and watched Obama's year-end press conference. It was a tense moment for me. I was really hoping the president might mention me or the other hostages. But Obama was in a hurry.
[clip of President Obama] —we reversed some of these major trends. OK, everybody, I got to get to Star Wars. [crowd noise] Thanks you!
Jason Rezaian, narrating: You got to be fucking kidding me. There's a new Star Wars movie!? And Obama was going to see it, and I couldn't.
Brett McGurk: So I thought we were pretty stuck. Anyway, so Kerry said you got to get on a plane and get out to Geneva, saying it's close.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: The race to a deal that might actually include me.
John Kerry: We weren't going to do a deal without get you, some folks out of it. We knew we had to get some things done.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: It was Christmas 2015, a whole year had passed since my mom came to visit me for the first time. But for me, not much had changed. I'd gone on trial and supposedly been convicted. The nuclear deal had been signed and I was still waiting to hear any news about what the hell was going to happen to me. I wasn't feeling jolly. Around that time, Brett McGurk really needed a holiday. He'd been juggling a ridiculous list of projects: the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the aftermath of terrorist bombings in Paris, and my case.
Brett McGurk: So just a really intense period of time. I was very determined to take at least two days in Connecticut to see my mom.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: He made it to Connecticut for Christmas. But the next day, he got a phone call from Secretary of State John Kerry.
Brett McGurk: And Kerry immediately said, Hey, where are you? And I said, well, I'm in Connecticut because it's Christmas. I'm visiting my mom and he said, Look, you got to, you got to get on a plane to Geneva tonight.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Kerry had just gotten off the phone with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. This was the final stretch of negotiations before Implementation Day, and the Secretary of State was determined to get the American hostages out of Iran by then. But as far as Brett was concerned, the secret talks with the Iranians had hit a wall.
Brett McGurk: The Iranians wanted this massive trade of much more people that they considered that we were holding unjustly, which of course we weren't. And we, based on their own principle of reciprocity, we had kind of culled down to seven people held in American prisons or who were on parole, who were about to get out anyway. Kind of what we considered almost freebies.
Lisa Monaco: We made very clear that we weren't going to be exchanging or releasing any Iranians in our prisons who were part of any violent acts or any terrorist offenses.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is Lisa Monaco. She was Obama's homeland security adviser. She'd been helping McGurk coordinate with the Justice Department as he tried to negotiate the prisoner swap.
Lisa Monaco: We got to a point where we could recommend to the president that he either release or commute the sentences of several U.S. and Iranian citizens, dual citizens, who were in prison or nearing the end of their sentences, largely for sanctions violations, for sanctions that were going to be lifted as part of the nuclear negotiations. So it made sense to commute those sentences or release those individuals at the same time that the Iranians were releasing you.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: So there was this dance going on, the Iranians wanted certain people released from U.S. prisons. But Brett and Lisa had to get the Justice Department to agree. Brett had been working on this for months at this point.
Brett McGurk: So I thought we were pretty stuck. Anyway, so Kerry said, you got to get on a plane and get out to Geneva, saying it's close. And I think I pushed him a little bit like, well, what really changed?
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Kerry said he had flexed his authority with Zarif. He made it clear to the foreign minister that the prisoner issue had to get resolved.
John Kerry: We weren't going to do a deal without get you, some folks out of it. We knew we had to get some things done.
Brett McGurk: He said, just get on a plane and sit down with these guys and don't leave until we get this thing done. These are kind of direct orders. So I did. I caught a flight out of Bradley Airport. I didn't have a suit with me. I wasn't, I was not prepared to do any diplomatic work in West Hartford, Connecticut. I went to Brooks Brothers in the airport and kind of bought what they had in terms of a pair of pants that were like very baggy pleated pants. They had one pair that fit me and a jacket.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Pretty soon, he was back in a fancy hotel in Geneva, negotiating with my captors.
Brett McGurk: And, you know, they kind of had the look on their face like, we don't know why we're here. Like, they were kind of ordered to go. So we just started and just gutting through kind of where we are. And this just kind of went on and on.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And as confident as Kerry was on the phone, Brett was just not seeing any light at the end of this tunnel. Actually, it looked like the prisoner exchange talks might be moving in the opposite direction.
Brett McGurk: I always tried to pull my counterpart aside and do a lot of sessions one-on-one with him, because he was a very different character in the room with his delegation. He was just kind of Mr. Tough Guy. Whereas in a room one-on-one with me, kind of we could have a more honest conversation. So I did that late in the night on New Year's Eve night, and we're in his room with a couple of interpreters when fireworks start going off over Lake Geneva and I remember him getting up to like, look at the fireworks and I said, Hey, like, we're not here to look at the fireworks, you know, if I wanted to, if I wanted to be celebrating New Year's Eve, I'd be home with my wife. So it was not a kind of, it was just, it was, it wasn't a very friendly environment.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Here's the thing, though it's not like Brett could just snap his fingers and set prisoners in the U.S. free, like the IRGC could in Iran. And for a good reason. It's called rule of law.
Brett McGurk: To get prisoners in an American prison to get out of prison is a big deal. You have to work through the Justice Department, and some might need a pardon, some might need a commuted sentence.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: So while Brett was negotiating with the IRGC, he was also going back and forth with the White House and the Justice Department. "Can we free this guy? How about this guy?" Another big sticking point: American hostages were going to be getting on a plane and flying back to the U.S. So the Iranians wanted their prisoners to fly to Iran. But most of them were dual nationals, Iranian-born naturalized American citizens.
Brett McGurk: What the Iranians really wanted was this propaganda of the exchange of the Iranian, you know what they call a 'hostage' being released from an American prison and returning to Iran. That was like what they really, really wanted. So we said, Hey, look, if they're, if they want to, we will have a plane and we'll get them to Geneva. And I couldn't tell them until very late in the process whether or not that would happen because, you know, we're a free country and it's up to these people.
Lisa Monaco: They didn't want to go back to Iran, so it actually ended up being a bit of an advertisement for their desire to stay in the United States.
Jason Rezaian: Yeah, when I think about that, I think the headline should always be, you know: 11 Iranian-Americans released from prison and went about their lives in America.
Lisa Monaco: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. There was no, there was no kind of ticker tape parade that they, that they went back to in Tehran.
Brett McGurk: This became a big issue because the Iranians that I was dealing with just really wanted us somehow to force somebody to go back.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: After a week in Geneva, Brett left, still wearing that one pair of baggy pants from Brooks Brothers. He had to report back to Washington, D.C.
Brett McGurk: We had a number of meetings in the Situation Room with Susan Rice.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Susan Rice was President Obama's national security adviser.
Brett McGurk: And I remember walking out of the situation room and like Susan came up to me and she, like, grabbed me by my suit jacket and said: go get these guys home. Like, kind of, like an old movie where they kind of, the bully kind of jacks a guy up against a locker in a high school—it's kind of that thing like, you got to go get this done.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Needless to say, Brett was frustrated. After all the exhausting work with the Iranians, the fact that his own side was giving him shit made him nervous. So he went to see someone he knew had the president's ear.
Ben Rhodes: I remember Brett asked to come see me in my office, which was very unusual. You know, Brett wants to take 30 minutes out of the day to just see me privately, you know, something must be important on his mind.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: That's Ben Rhodes again, one of President Obama's foreign policy advisers. He had a big job in a tiny office in the basement of the West Wing.
Ben Rhodes: And so it kind of comes into my, you know, windowless hole of an office with a drop down ceiling, and he sits down and the guy looks just totally beleaguered. And he says to me, Ben, look, I, I think I can get us there, I can see the outlines of this deal, there's a way to do this where the Iranians who we release are really not at all important people. But he wanted to know, like I'm getting a lot of pushback at DOJ, every time I get pushback from DOJ that I have to take back in the room with the Iranians, they get their backs up and the whole thing looks like it can fall apart. You know, what do you think?
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Ben had actually done a similar deal with the Cuban government in 2014. So he knew the ins and outs of the release process. In that case, there was resistance from the Justice Department, too.
Ben Rhodes: And so I said, look, just keep at it, just recognize that that resistance is going to be there from both sides. That frankly, Obama wants you to feel some pressure from DOJ, so you're getting the best deal possible. But I was kind of like, let me let you in on a secret here—when this gets to the president, he's going to side with you, because he wants to get those people home.
Brett McGurk: I just wanted to make sure that the president was cool with everything that's coming together, and Ben talked to the president, very quickly got back to me and said, Yeah, you know, when push comes to shove, we're going to have the president's back, was really important.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: This turned out to be true. President Obama made it clear that this needed to get worked out. At that point, Brett was able to jimmy some of the Iranian cases, like for one guy:
Brett McGurk: One of the guys that we were giving a pardon to, he told his lawyer. I don't want a pardon. He said he was innocent and he's like a pardon suggests that I'm admitting I'm guilty and so he didn't want the pardon. So we actually had to adjust that guy's pardon and do some things. A lot of last minute technical details which, and because it's a pardon power, that's going all the way up into the Oval Office.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: And as Ben Rhodes told me, Obama wasn't just clearing red tape.
Ben Rhodes: Well, you know, President Obama was unusually engaged in these negotiations, unlike anything else that I remember in the foreign policy arena. You know, he's literally down in the weeds as to the numbers of centrifuges at the Fordo facility, or the things that we can't give up in terms of inspections and monitoring. And so it was pretty remarkable to watch this kind of constant presidential engagement in negotiations that were taking place halfway around the world.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: At this point, the nuclear talks and the prisoner exchange were still separated. Remember, the administration initially didn't want to give the Iranians the opportunity to leverage me and the other hostages against the nuclear deal. But now seeing all these separate conversations coming to a head, the boss man decided they needed to join back up. Here's Ben Rhodes again:
Ben Rhodes: And you know, we had a discussion with Obama in the Oval Office about how do we land all these planes? And Obama said, Look, we just need the biggest bang possible. And I remember that's how he framed it. So we're going to have to bring together all these different threads, all these different timelines, all these different negotiating tracks.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: With that, everything was tied up with a big bow as Implementation Day approached. At that point, it had been months since Kazem told me I'd be getting out. In fact, I hadn't seen him at all for exactly 83 days. Yeah, I was still counting. But on the first Monday of 2016, Kazem paid me a visit. He repeated the same promise from September: I'd be released soon. This time, though, I pushed back: How was this promise any different from all the others? He said it was more official now. Whatever that means. My blood was boiling at this point. So as calmly as I could, I reminded him that he lied about everything. Kazem responded: I know, I must sound like the lying shepherd. I asked, is that like the boy who cried wolf? Kazem smiled. We were finally speaking the same language. Pretty good. It only took 532 days. While we crossed over this extremely low bar, I wanted to do everything in my power to confirm I was being released to somehow make it real. I told Kazem I wanted to speak to Yegi right then, even though it wasn't the day for our usual weekly call. Saying it out loud to my wife would make everything more concrete, less fuzzy than the last year and a half of my life. Like a used car dealer, Kazem left for a couple of minutes. When he came back, he said the Great Judge had given permission for the call. At last, I could tell my wife it was official, I'd be getting out in January.
But the Iranians weren't done fucking with us. They told Yegi she wouldn't be allowed to leave with me, even though they'd let her out of Evin, the IRGC held on to Yegi's passport. And they weren't going to let her travel.
Yegi Rezaian: They were like [in goofy voice]: Well, it's not clear she still has a standing case against her, she has to go and see.
Jason Rezaian: That's your Kazem? [in same voice:] "She has a standing case against her."
Yegi Rezaian, in the Kazem voice: "She has to go and see Judge Salavati and that may take a couple of days or couple of weeks.
Jason Rezaian: A couple of fucking decades, maybe.
Jason Rezaian, narrating: Coming up, if you think this story is already intense, well, just wait for it.
Brett McGurk: You know, you say you're the big shot, you hold the prison keys, so call whoever you got to call, right now.
Yegi Rezaian: By midnight, I realize, Oh, we're not going anywhere.
John Kerry: We suddenly learned that your wife wasn't with you, and nobody knew where she was.
Ben Rhodes: If you don't get this unstuck at the airport, everything else could fall apart.
Jason Rezaian: That's next time on 544 Days. 544 Days is an original series from Crooked Media and A24. It's hosted by me, Jason Rezaian. Our senior producer is Matt Frassica. Julie Carli is our associate producer. Our editor is Alison MacAdam, with fact checking by Amy Tardif. Sound design by Josephine Holtzman of Future Projects. Our theme and other original music is by Ramtin Arablouei. Production support from Sydney Rapp and Gabi Mrozowski. The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Jess Lubben, Lyra Smith, and Alison Falzetta. Special thanks to Tommy Vietor and Ravi Nandan.