Congressman Jared Huffman hails Jason Rezaian’s release from Iran
Amid the joyful reunion with his family Monday in Germany, his first full day of freedom on friendly soil after 545 days in an Iranian prison, Jason Rezaian grabbed the baseball cap that came all the way from his Marin County home.
The cap from Rezaian’s alma mater, the Marin Academy in San Rafael, got there in the hands of Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman, the congressman from San Rafael who had worked, largely behind the scenes, for his former constituent’s release from captivity since Rezaian’s arrest in July 2014.
“He just reached out and gave me a great big hug. He was just beaming,” Huffman said in a telephone interview.
Rezaian, a 39-year-old Washington Post reporter, was wearing the cap in a photo, standing shoulder to shoulder with Huffman, his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi; his mother, Mary Rezaian and brother, Ali Rezaian, at a guest house on the grounds of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southwest Germany.
Rezaian and the two women were in high spirits, Huffman said, noting the three were “fresh out of this harrowing experience” during their final hours in Iran on Sunday. Just as Rezaian and two other American prisoners were to leave on a flight provided by the Swiss government, authorities detained Salehi and Mary Rezaian, and Jason Rezaian was not about to leave without them, Huffman said.
Following a “frantic final round of diplomacy” involving American, Iranian and Swiss officials, all five boarded the plane, the congressman said.
On Monday night in Germany, the Rezaians celebrated along with Jason’s bosses from the Washington Post, who had campaigned hard for the journalist’s release.
Huffman said it “seemed like a huge weight had been lifted” from Mary Rezaian. Salehi was beaming while Ali Rezaian remained a bit stoic, worried over how his brother would work back into his old life, Huffman said.
On the other side of the guest house, former Marine Amir Hekmati and his family were celebrating with Rep. Daniel Kildee, D-Michigan.
Huffman said he and Kildee will spend more time with the two families Tuesday, but the future beyond that is uncertain. The Rezaians and doctors at the Landstuhl hospital, located near Ramstein Air Base, are determined not to rush Jason Rezaian home, Huffman said.
There is an established protocol for the re-integration of American hostages and prisoners into their normal lives, a series of debriefings and counseling sessions that Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl went through at Landstuhl in 2014.
Captives can’t just slip back into civilian life, Huffman said. “It doesn’t happen that way. Those people have been through hell. Their families have been through hell,” he said.
The Rezaians’ experience was especially trying due to “so many false starts” over the past 18 months in which U.S. officials thought he might be released, only to see nothing happen. “It’s been a real roller coaster,” Huffman said. “You can imagine how difficult it’s been for Jason and his family.”
The last of those disappointments was six months ago, he said.
In early December, Huffman and five other House Democrats, all members of the Progressive Caucus, met secretly with Iran’s United Nations ambassador, Gholamali Khoshroo, in New York to press for the release of Rezaian, Hekmati, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson. Abedini was freed over the weekend with the two others; Levinson has yet to be released and his whereabouts are unknown.
Huffman’s intent, he told the Huffington Post, was to make clear to Khoshroo and higher authorities in Iran that it would be impossible to improve relations “as long as they arbitrarily rounded up and imprisoned journalists.”
Rezaian, who once worked in his father’s Persian carpet store in Petaluma, had moved to Iran to work as a freelance journalist in 2008 and was hired as the Post’s Tehran correspondent in 2012.
Huffman described the Iranian ambassador as “not particularly warm or engaging,” but said he left the meeting with hope. He sensed, he said in the Huffington Post interview published online Sunday, a “choreography” between the impending implementation of President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which included lifting economic sanctions, and the prisoner exchange.
On Monday, Huffman said, “I don’t pretend that anything I did made the difference.” Nor did any single act prove decisive, but he credited State Department negotiators who “never gave up” efforts to secure Rezaian’s release.
The nuclear deal “created the diplomatic channel that made this possible,” Huffman said, and the lifting of economic sanctions made Rezaian less valuable as a pawn because the Iranians “had gotten what they wanted.”
Last week’s release of 10 American sailors detained by Iran was a product of the same diplomatic thaw, he said. “For the first time in decades we’re having direct talks, country to country,” Huffman said.
Acknowledging Republican criticism of the nuclear deal and the prisoner exchange, Huffman said the Obama administration “did a great job” in freeing the Americans. “I don’t think we set a precedent or compromised any core principles,” he said.
Sia Zadeh of Petaluma, a friend of Rezaian for 10 years, said he and many other Iranian-Americans are yearning for a warmer relationship between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran, long seen as an “implacable foe,” he said.
“It’s been a very tumultuous relationship,” Zadeh said, dating from the 1979 revolution that supplanted the U.S.-backed Pahlavi dynasty with the Shia clerics, currently the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the nation’s supreme leader.
But Iran, home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is not as monolithic as many westerners might think, said Zadeh, an IT management instructor and business consultant. More than half of Iran’s population of 78 million is under age 30, and most of them are well-educated, social media-savvy and longing for access to western technology, he said.
The Iranian-American diaspora, which numbers about 1 million people in the U.S. — largely based in California — hopes that Rezaian’s homecoming signals a “rapprochement” between the two nations, Zadeh said.
That way may not be clear yet, but Jason Rezaian has some definite goals. Huffman said the newly freed man yearns to return to his culinary stomping grounds in the North Bay, with beer, burritos and Thai food on the agenda.
“He’s a foodie,” Huffman said.