No American had been arrested on charges of espionage in Russia since the Cold War—until The Wall Street Journal’s reporter Evan Gershkovich was just less than two months ago. The charges are baseless; in fact, they had nothing to do with Gershkovich, apart from him being a high-profile American reporting from Russia in the middle of its indirect standoff with the United States over the war in Ukraine. But they’re not unusual. In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for autocratic governments to use arbitrary detention—effectively, hostage-taking—as a way to exert pressure on rival governments. This is a tactic once associated almost exclusively with terrorists. A decade ago, only China and Iran had started appropriating it. But over the past year, 19 states have used it against the U.S. alone. What’s going on?
Jason Rezaian is an Iranian-American journalist and a columnist for The Washington Post. In 2014, while working as the Post’s bureau chief in Tehran, Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were arrested by Iranian police. Salehi was later freed, while Rezaian was indicted on charges of spying, collaborating with hostile governments, and propaganda against the Iranian establishment. He was released in January 2016 after 544 days in prison. For Rezaian, the events that led from his initial detention to his ultimate use as a hostage were in some ways peculiar to the internal dynamics of the Iranian regime at the time. But the tactic has proven so effective that autocrats around the world are using it more and more. As the incentives get stronger, Rezaian says, the U.S. and other affected countries are in a race to figure out how to counter them.
J.J. Gould: When you were first arrested, how much of a surprise was it that this was happening to you?
Jason Rezaian: There were times in the five years when I was living in Iran—and even in the years before, when I’d go to Iran for weeks or months at a time to report from there—when I was nervous about it.
Of course, I’d seen other journalists arrested. Being a foreign-national or dual-national journalist in Iran always seemed to lead to prison—for a while; and then they’d get out after a few weeks, or a month, or a couple of months. So my life in Iran was always a calculated risk.
But the truth is, when I was arrested, Iran was about a year into the reformist government of Hassan Rouhani; nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. and other world powers seemed to be going well; and it looked as though the Iranian regime wanted to ease tensions and get itself out from under the economic sanctions it had been subject to. In that sense, it was a surprising time to be arrested.
It was a time when more journalists had been let back into Iran, after years when almost no one had. Journalists I’d known before 2009, and hadn’t seen in the country since, started returning; different news networks started returning; Anthony Bourdain even brought his show to Iran. He interviewed me and my wife for it. 60 Minutes came to town. I helped them out with that—just a few weeks before I was taken into custody.
When it happened, it was evident that the intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guard Corps was behind it. But what was surprising was less the arrest itself and more the reality it took me into.
I’d always understood that there was a fractured quality to Iran’s internal political dynamics. But I’d also figured that the regime was ultimately like a school of fish, swimming in unison, guided by the decisions of the Supreme Leader—that it was ultimately unified from the top down. As it turns out, it wasn’t that simple. Yes, the Supreme Leader is the decider. But the reality is, there are all sorts of groups and individuals under him vying for their own agendas—just like anywhere else.
I’m not sure people see that very clearly from the outside. And for better or worse, I got to see it from the inside. I got to see that the only thing all these different interests within the regime have in common—from the most insular to the most outward-looking, the most hardline to the most reform-minded—is the goal of preserving and perpetuating the Islamic Republic. That’s it. Beyond this, they have very different views about how to achieve it.
Gould: So what interests ended up driving things in your case?
Rezaian: I couldn’t really see that at first, myself. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t have a day in court until 10 months after my arrest. For seven weeks of that, I was in solitary confinement. My wife was in solitary confinement. Neither of us had any idea where the other was. They put you through the wringer. I was in interrogation rooms for many hours a day. They alternately told me that I’ll be executed imminently, or that I’ll be released tomorrow, or that I’ll spend the rest of my life in prison. They told me there’d been news reports that I’d died in a car accident—so, you know, no one’s coming to get you. It’s all intended to confuse you, to disconnect you from reality. And it works.
But if you look at what happened over this whole year-and-a-half ordeal, you can see that every one of the moments when I was dragged into an Iranian court, or when an Iranian politician stated publicly that I needed to be executed, or when Iran’s foreign minister at the time, Javad Zarif, traveled to Europe or the U.S. and was asked about my case and gave some bullshit answer—every one of those moments corresponded with a moment in Iran’s quest to get to the nuclear deal it was negotiating. So in a way, I was a hostage in a very literal sense, but I was also a form of indirect leverage in those negotiations: We’ve got an American journalist, don’t forget.
Now, if you heard Zarif’s responses to questions about me, you might have thought he was on my side. But if you looked carefully, every time Zarif talked about me, he dug a slightly deeper hole around me. It was a negotiating tactic. He’s played the same game many times with many different hostages—me, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the Iranian-British dual citizen imprisoned from 2016 through last year, others—and while the cases are different in some ways, you can see the playbook: Well, this is a good person but, you know, they got involved in some things they shouldn’t have gotten involved in. I can’t give you the details, because it’s a matter of national security, but the crime they’re accused of is very serious—this kind of nonsense.
It became clear to me that someone like Zarif can say whatever he wants about being opposed to hardline elements within the Islamic Republic, but at the end of the day, they’re all working together toward a common goal. And he’s never going to be on my side.
Gould: Why were you released in the end?
Rezaian: I was released in a negotiated settlement between the U.S. and Iran formalized on the day the nuclear deal was implemented.
There were several other Americans detained in Iran at the same time, some of them for years: Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Michigan, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Idaho, a few others. And we were all ostensibly freed in exchange for seven Iranians being held in the U.S. on charges of sanctions evasion.
The elephant in the room is that on the day we were released, $400 million in cash was also released to Iran. So all these different pieces were being moved around the board at once: The U.S. was lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for Iran shutting down key parts of its nuclear program; prisoners were being released in both countries; and money that had been frozen since 1980, after the Islamic Revolution, was being brought into the equation at the last minute.
A lot of people called that a ransom payment. But the money was always there as an element of leverage. When the United States blocked Iran from access to its oil revenues, the idea was never to take that money forever—or to give it to some other country. The idea was always to use the money as a carrot in negotiations.
Now, I’m not here to pronounce on the wisdom of that approach. But when we look at the hostage-takings different governments are doing now—whether it’s Iran or China or Russia—each has its own motivation. In China’s case, it seems to be more tit for tat—Beijing retaliating for something. In Russia’s case, it tends to be about recuperating assets—like Victor Bout, the arms dealer recently exchanged for the American basketball player Brittney Griner. In Iran’s case, it’s money.
Iran doesn’t have a lot of money. They’ve had a hard time accessing their oil revenues since the 2010s, when the Obama administration started putting sanctions on them as a form of pressure to get to a nuclear deal. As long as this is part of U.S. strategy, we should expect that Americans and Brits and others who travel to Iran have targets on their backs.
This isn’t to say any of these hostage-takings are justified. It’s just part of the context for why they’re happening. There are four Americans being held in Iran right now, and they’re all dealing with the same kind of situation. Once again, there’s there is a deal on the table, and once again, that deal would include unfreezing some of Iran’s money in third countries.
People ask me all the time, don’t these kinds of deals just incentivize more hostage-taking? My answer is no—and that this is actually the wrong question. The answer is no, because the reason why China or Russia or Iran keep taking hostages is that there’s nothing deterring them. So the real question is, what can we do to deter autocratic governments from pulling stunts like this in the first place? Because as of now, there’s literally nothing standing in the way—nothing to make the Chinese Communist Party, or Putin’s apparatus, or the intelligence services of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard think twice.
Gould: How do you make them think twice?
Rezaian: It’s an extremely complex problem, but I think there are a few ways at it.
One is for like-minded democratic governments to take a unified approach to the problem. The U.S. State Department, under the direction of Roger Carstens, the current presidential envoy for hostage affairs, is trying to get other countries—Canada, Australia, the U.K., their European and East Asian allies—to align on the idea that if one of ours is taken, it’s the same as if it’s one of yours. The idea is to act in concert consistently—to take all the measures we have separately and use them collectively.
That’s a tough alignment to get to. Up until now, the approach has been very much bilateral between two countries. In the case of the Americans who are currently being held in Iran—or of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who I mentioned, and Anoosheh Ashoori, a British-Iranian businessman arrested in 2017 and also released last year—the U.S. and the U.K., started taking a coordinated approach for the first time. But the Iranians weren’t meeting with the Americans, so the U.K. was out in front representing both countries’ interests, and the discussions dragged on for a very long time. At a certain point, the U.K. decided that it wasn’t getting traction on the American cases and that the political costs of these Britons being stuck in prison were getting too high. So again, they made their own deal. In the midst of that, Morad Tahbaz, a British-born American citizen of Iranian origins, was left behind. He’s still in prison in Iran, and there are three other Americans waiting for their freedom with him.
Thinking about preventative measures a country like the United States can take, meanwhile, my hypothesis is the right levers are going to differ from one hostage-taking country to another, because they have to track the motivation of the hostage-taking in the first place. So, for example, if Iran wants money, you have to figure out how to make it more costly than they assume they’re going to benefit. If the Russians want their spies back, that’s a different equation.
Part of the problem there goes to some uncomfortable questions about who we give access to our countries. Now, employees of Russian state media, Chinese state media, Iranian state media are all allowed to come to the United States and report from here because U.S. policy here is governed by our commitment to the freedom of expression. It’s a core value in the U.S., and we rightly want to honor it—but these states are taking advantage of it, sending intelligence operatives and other state employees under the guise of being journalists.
It’s important to understand, the United States doesn’t do that. We have conventions against it. So when I’m taken, or when Evan Gershkovich is taken, and we’re accused of espionage, everybody knows it’s a farce—including the people who took us. Why? Because they know Americans don’t do that. Maybe we did it during the Cold War. But that’s just not a thing anymore. When I think back to my interrogators, I remember how they knew they were pulling a fast one and getting away with it. They knew that, because the rule of law is so normal in a country like the U.S., when people here read headlines about an American being accused of something there, they read it with a sort of tacit assumption that there must be something to the charge—even if it’s not clear what that would be.
That’s why the term hostage is so important in these cases. I want to acknowledge and applaud members of the Biden administration, and the Trump administration, for using it. Wrongful detention or unjust detention—terms like these just confuse people.
I think the U.S. is getting wiser and more street-smart about these cases, and it’s better that it does now rather than later, because the number of cases is rising exponentially. There are 50-something of them right now. When I was jailed in Iran, there were four or five of us around the world. Other countries weren’t doing this. Now it’s spreading like a virus.
Gould: Zarif’s playbook has become part of the autocratic playbook?
Rezaian: It’s become part of the autocratic playbook. So when the caseload goes from five to 50 to 500, what resources is the U.S. government going to commit? How are they going to choose which cases get those resources? Who’s going to get left behind? These are all questions that people in the halls of power around the world are trying to answer right now, because they know that if they don’t, the issue is going to get out of control.