When current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's was running for office last year, a message of a more open society dominated western media coverage of his campaign. Three months after he won on a moderate platform of “prudence and hope,” Rouhani wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post explaining his approach to international relations.
Many Iranians had hoped the arrests of journalists and activists would decrease under Rouhani's leadership, but censorship and persecution continue. Jason Rezaian, the Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post, the very same paper in which Rouhani outlined his moderate views last year, was one of the latest to be arrested. He and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for the UAE newspaper The National, were detained with two other photojournalists on July 22.
Last month, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also penned an op-ed for the newspaper, this time about nuclear negotiations. Foreign policy journalist Ali Gharib pointed out the Washington Post connection on Twitter:
— Ali Gharib (@Ali_Gharib) julio 24, 2014
As one of few foreign correspondents in based in Iran, Rezaian’s reporting hardly breached the sensitivities that the Iranian ruling apparatus is known to crackdown upon. His last two articles for The Washington Post covered baseball in Iran (“In Iran, a spark of enthusiasm for America’s national pastime”) and coverage of the nuclear negotiations from Vienna (“World powers agree to extend talks with Iran”). He was arrested in his home, alongside his wife, upon his return from Vienna.
Diplomatic negotiations between the U.S., U.K, France, China, Russia, Germany and Iran over Iran's nuclear program have taken place for six months in Vienna, but official and back-channel talks have occurred since the secret nuclear program was revealed in 2002.
In the days before the arrests, The Washington Post ran several opinion pieces that advocated a strong-arm approach to the negotiations. As the deadline to reach a landmark agreement on June 20 drew near, The Washington Post's editorial board called on the U.S. government to “reject any attempt by Mr. Zarif to obtain concessions, such as increased oil sales, in exchange for an extension.”
The once promising negotiations reached a stalemate, but a four-month extension was agreed on two days before the deadline, which Rezaian reported.
Other recent coverage not by Rezaian included “Poll finds 61% of Americans favor cooperating with Iran to contain Islamic State militants” and “Sanctions on Iran cost the U.S. as much as $175 billion, study says.”
On July 29, one of the four was released, according to statements by the photojournalists family. On the same day, Rezaian’s mother made an emotional plea to the Iranian government for her son’s release. One Iranian journalist and activist working abroad, who wishes to remain unnamed, said, “I thought they would have been released by now, no one expected the arrest to last longer than a few days.”
It is unclear on what charges the Iranian-Americans are detained, as official state media have verified the arrests but not the reasons behind them. An unconfirmed report by Tasnim news website, associated with Revolutionary Guards, claimed the arrests were on suspicions of spying.
— Shargh (@SharghDaily) julio 25, 2014
In a statement to the online news website Al-Monitor, Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the International Campaign for Human Rights, explained that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supported these arrests, along with those of numerous other journalists and netizens, as an effort to balance the rapprochement with the west in light of progress on the nuclear deal.
Reporters Without Borders places the number of jailed news providers in Iran at 65 with these latest arrests. Earlier in June, members of the group who produced a version of Pharrell’s viral hit “Happy” were arrested, and released a few days later.
An outpouring of support online followed Rezaian's arrest. Thomas Erdbrink, one of the few U.S. correspondents in Tehran along with Rezaian, immediately tweeted the following:
— Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink) julio 24, 2014
Rezaian’s personal friend and the director of research for the National Iranian American Council reached out to the international community in his personal plea for his release in a Huffington Post blog post. The U.S. State Department has already urged Iran to release Rezaian, and The Washington Post editorial board has written a strongly worded statement against Iran’s arrest of their Tehran correspondent.
Many activists and supporters have expressed sentiments of hopelessness in the wake of such arrests. Debate rages on what can be done in the face of the Iranian judiciary, responsible for the arrests, which has very little accountability to the elected government or the people when it carries out arrests. For now, the general reactions against these arrests are of outrage and confusion.
Detention of friends and colleagues Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi is unjustifiable. No official word on their whereabouts or condition. — Mohammad Davari (@modavari) julio 24, 2014
— Bahman Kalbasi (@BahmanKalbasi) julio 24, 2014