Ali Rezaian last chatted to his younger brother, Jason Rezaian, a reporter for the Washington Post, two months ago. They were discussing the Tehran-based journalist's upcoming trip to the United States. Hours later, Iranian officials raided Jason Rezaian's home and threw him and his wife in jail.
Rezaian's family has had no contact with either since the couple's arrest on July 22. Rezaian, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, and his wife, Yeganeh (Yegi) Salehi, an Iranian journalist with the Dubai-based The National, have not had access to a lawyer or been publicly charged. That has not stopped Iran's conservative-aligned media from smearing Rezaian's name, spewing spurious accusations that Rezaian is a U.S. spy, and worse.
"At some point I think everybody has to wonder why would it take eight weeks to investigate these folks and not have something there," Ali Rezaian told BuzzFeed News from California, where he and his brother were raised. "Because they weren't doing anything wrong. They were legal journalists. It's hard to comprehend."
"At a time when I think Iran wants to be seen in a more positive light and be part of the international community it really brings a question to how the country really works," he said.
The U.S. government has condemned Rezaian's detention — but can legally do little else. Under Iranian law, Rezaian's U.S. citizenship is meaningless: The U.S. and Iran do not have diplomatic ties, and, when in Iran, the country does not recognize its dual U.S. citizens as anything but Iranian.
That has left the Rezaian family with few ways to fight back. "It's difficult because there aren't a lot of direct things we feel like can make a difference," Ali Rezaian said. The family has started an online campaign, Free Jason and Yegi, that encourages supporters to call Iran's mission to the United Nations to ask for the couple's release. Last month, Rezaian's mother, who lives in Istanbul, released a recorded plea to the Iranian government to release her son.
Ali Rezaian stressed that the case of his brother, a veteran journalist who legally reported from Iran for years, was "unprecedented." But in Iran, the indiscriminate arrests of activists and journalists — most of whom never make international headlines — is not.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrives in New York next week for the 69th United Nations General Assembly. Elected in 2013 on a reformist agenda, Rouhani has repeatedly spoken in favor of relaxing some of Iran's political and media restraints, which are favored by Iranian hardliners (and Rouhani opponents) who remain in control of key judicial and security institutions. Some Iran watchers have speculated that Rezaian's detention was a ploy by Rouhani's opponents to anger the West and discredit his standing, perhaps to jeopardize nuclear negotiations. Rouhani has so far remained silent on Rezaian's case.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister and ally of Rouhani's, told NPR this week that Rezaian knows his charges and is being interrogated "for what he has done as an Iranian citizen." Zarif, speaking to NPR in the U.S., where he is attending the latest round of negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, added that he knew Rezaian "to be a fair reporter" and "had hoped all along that his detention would be short."
Ali Rezaian said he appreciated Zarif's praise. "Clearly the minister is right. Jason is a good journalist and he's fair to Iran." Ali Rezaian later added: "It's a unique case and it's a case that I think the responsible people in the Iranian government should want to put behind us immediately."
As Jason Rezaian's detention has dragged on, his brother said his family has received an outpouring of support from Rezaian's colleagues and acquaintances.
Ali Rezaian described his brother as "someone who brought a lot of people together wherever he went." He had a long-standing love for travel and telling stories, and jumped when presented with the opportunity to go to Iran, where his father was from.
"I think he really saw the disconnect between what people would say outside of the country and what was really going on," Ali Rezaian said of his brother. "He really loved the kinds of stories [from Iran] that people didn't expect to hear."
"There're so many misperceptions about Iran, and I think he [Jason] wanted to go there to dispel those misperceptions," Ali Rezaian said. "The very unfortunate thing is that a very small group of people in Iran have over the last two months worked to perpetuate those misperceptions by using Jason and Yegi."
Ali Rezaian recalled his brother's excitement about one of his last stories for the Washington Post before his detention: a profile of Iran's national baseball team.
"It made him so happy," Ali Rezaian said. "He loved baseball. And he loved being able to go and meet these folks in Iran that work so hard because of sanctions and because of a variety of reasons. Those kinds of stories he really loves, being able to understand the complexities of the societies and to share them with readers."