Class Contempt: A Washington Post Reporter’s Prison Diary

A review of Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison

Rostam Pourzal

Jason Rezaian (Photo credit – the New Yorker)

Journalist Jason Rezaian, born in California to Iranian immigrant parents, was arrested with his wife in Tehran midsummer 2014 on suspicion of espionage. He had a government-issued license to gather and report news for the Washington Post.

He was held 544 days before his release in a prisoner exchange negotiated with the accord that scaled back Iran’s nuclear program.

Back in Washington, Rezaian writes an opinion column focused on Iran for the Post. He is suing the Islamic Republic for one billion dollars. The following review of Rezaian’s prison memoirs addresses the book only and not his interviews or articles.

Before discussing Prisoner on merit, I should make clear that I believe the man is innocent. The Washington Post has a long documented history of collaborating with US spy agencies, as revealed famously by former Post reporter Carl Bernstein, among others.

Furthermore, the paper’s sole owner since 2013, Jeff Bezos, is also the CEO and majority stakeholder of Amazon, a company with an acknowledged $600 million data contract with the CIA. None of this remotely shows that the newspaper hired Rezaian to spy on Iran.


Rezaian’s chatty and angry prison memoir is a good read for its intended audience: Americans looking for confirmation of what they already “know”, the public that finds comfort in facile condemnation of designated US adversaries.

As such it joins a parade of published memoirs of Iranian exiles and aggrieved second-generation Iranian-Americans that, with narrow personal focus, have produced more heat than light. Prisoner lacks the depth to justify its sweeping judgement of a government that has been a central preoccupation for top strategists for four tumultuous decades.

The reason is oddly simple: in his zeal to discredit the ideological prism of a system that puzzles him, Rezaian is himself possessed by a comparable ideological obsession of his own.

Iran’s shocking revolution, including the seizure of the US embassy – coming a short few years after the humiliating US defeat in Vietnam – initially generated what could be a healthy curiosity in the early 1980s.

How could the self-assured monarchy, with its US-sponsored military and secret police ranking among the world’s most feared, unravel quickly before protesters with bare hands? Why could Washington not save the indispensable Cold War ally?

These questions, and Westerners’ hunger to know why their intelligence and media elites were caught off guard in 1979, initially inspired a few expert histories of 20th century Iran. With realism and maturity, these rare works explained the revolution’s profound popular roots without repeating condescending forecasts of the newly installed Islamic Republic’s imminent downfall.

But predictably the frenzied search for answers also encouraged a bumper crop of less informative books, including personal memoirs, bemoaning Iran’s domestic and foreign policy surprises without explanatory context.

A common feature of the genre is the authors’ silence about the historic and ongoing crimes of imperialist powers in Iran and its region.

For this and related reasons, readers whose sole reference is narratives like Rezaian’s are as ill-equipped to decipher Iran’s contradictions today as the US public has largely been since the 1979 revolution. But if one’s purpose is to simply read about a wrongly imprisoned reporter’s anguish, the author does not disappoint.

The main reason that Prisoner fails to enlighten is that it dismisses Iran’s popular classes as intentionally as Western reporters did before its grassroots revolution erupted. (Rezaian was three years old at the time.)

With their epic sacrifices and against great odds, millions of traditional families of modest means freed the nation from a century of foreign clientelism and rolled back Iraq’s military aggression. It is impossible to understand Iran’s politics, or its imperfect judiciary, without beginning to know this majority. Yet in Prisoner they alternate between being invisible and being stigmatized as dumb, smelly, and worse. (For balance and nuance in coverage of a similar Islamist movement’s moment in history, I recommend Into the Hands of the Soldiers by David D. Kirkpatrick.)

Rezaian appropriately expounds the jubilation felt in May and June, 2009 by professional-class residents of Tehran packing nightly the northern stretch of Vali Asr Avenue to rally for the reformist opposition’s presidential candidates and argue with its few detractors in attendance. (I, too, was there in person and witnessed the gridlock and euphoria that televised candidate debates prompted.)

But he fails to inform the reader that the less affluent majority a few miles south cared less for social liberalization and largely stayed home until it was time to vote overwhelmingly to re-elect President Ahmadinejad.

Not coincidentally, this is the demographic that fills the ranks of the Islamic Republic’s national security establishment (the author’s malodorous tormentors) and whose hopes and worries finds public expression in the “farcical institutions” making up the government.

Rezaian recounts growing up in wealthy Marin County, California in a two-acre family compound with horses and “the biggest home pool I have ever seen.” He and his brother “fit in just fine” at their private school, proof to him that “[w]e were typical Americans”!!

Later in life, reporting for the Washington Post from Tehran, the newlywed lived similarly far away from ordinary Iranians (other than his cook and cleaning lady) in affluent Shahrak-e Gharb section of Tehran in a “luxury high-rise… a sought-after address for people in the know… with twenty-four hour security at the gate and the front desk”.

The home was the reporter’s “sanctuary…. I ventured into the city less and less…. preferring to watch government press conferences on television”. Other than that, he “never watched Iran’s local TV”. But he and his wife racked up frequent flyer miles shopping in international destinations near and far. “[W]e were living a life that others envied.”

Oddly, active avoidance of less fortunate Americans and Iranians never shook Rezaian’s conviction that he stands for pluralism. “You are completely unable to put yourself in anyone else’s shoes. That’s why you fail”, he angrily told a “very working class” interrogator in prison, whose cohort he later characteristically denounced in the book as “no-dimensional” second graders.

The invisibility of commoners — most especially prayerful nobodies — to Rezaian reaches still sadder peaks in his discussion of in-bound international tourism, a topic of great interest to him (and, coincidentally, to me).

In the holy city of Mashhad, his father’s lineage had for generations “held a key role overseeing the Imam Reza shrine”, from which the name Rezaian is presumably derived. His grandfather left Iran for Marin County, and moved in with the family, where the golden ager presumably had plenty of stories to share with the future Washington Post reporter.

With this background, one could reasonably expect the author of Prisoner to include in the pages he devoted to tourism the millions of not-so-glamorous Shi’i pilgrims who annually flock to Mashhad from neighboring countries and far-flung corners of Asia, Africa and elsewhere.

Tourists who largely have not seen and will not predictably see Paris, London or Amsterdam except perhaps to look for work. There is no mention of them, not a word, in Rezaian’s pages on tourism, save for a vague passing reference to Mashhad as “a crossroads of people and cultures”.

Only European and North American travelers seem to matter, presumably because they smell better.

“Normal people” representing “the seductive power of the American idea”, as the author exalts them. The author’s aversion to loser pilgrims may explain his long-held choice of guru, the notorious Islamophobe Christopher Hitchens.

I hear echoes of Hitchens where Rezaian rejects the “Islamic lunar calendar” as outrageous evidence that Muslims are categorically unaware “that the Earth revolves around the sun”!

That statement is clearly false. Irrefutable is Rezaian’s own intentional ignorance in excluding international pilgrims in page after page discussing tourism to Iran. An ignorance that should embarrass the Washington Post.

The newspaper is nothing if not all about up-to-the-minute political and geo-strategic reporting; and in the Middle East, cross-border coalescing of people of faith is newsworthy for obvious reasons. (Even in a far less contested context like Spain, no serious writer would talk up tourism without a mention of the Camino de Santiago.) As Rezaian whiled away his days in Tehran (by his own admission) dreaming of future foodie tourism what-ifs, the unemployed foreign fighters that Iran trained by the thousands and deployed to Syria came from the same modest communities whose religious tourists don’t count for him.

More to the point, if the “unbathed” in-country workforce relied on by the ayatollahs is made up of clownish morons, how does Rezaian explain the Islamic Republic’s quick rise from the ashes of a devastating war to regional-power status despite decades of intensifying Western sanctions?

How does he explain that mighty Israel was militarily forced off Arab lands (a feat that even combined Arab armies never accomplished) by Hezbollah, a militia that inept “very working class” Iranians like his interrogators trained in south Lebanon?

If the American system that Rezaian passionately advocates as the antidote to Iran’s ills is smart, why has it sunk over a trillion dollars in a futile 18-year war in Afghanistan? A war that Washington is now struggling to extricate itself from by leaving in charge the Taliban, the very fanatics that the US ostensibly went in to eradicate.

If Iran’s government ranks are populated with dimwits, why, with hundreds of thousands of US and UK troops and mercenaries in Iraq, US leaders’ visits to Baghdad had to be furtive but the Iranian president received full state visit honors? As reported March 3, 2008 by the Chicago Tribune,

Unlike [President George] Bush’s trips, which were disclosed only after he had arrived and lasted just a few hours, Ahmadinejad announced his visit well in advance and planned to spend two days in Baghdad. At night he is sleeping outside the relative safety of the Green Zone in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces along the Tigris River, guarded by Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga militia.

Bush and other U.S. dignitaries had been ferried from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone by helicopter, but Ahmadinejad drove into town along the often-dangerous airport road in a black BMW escorted by a phalanx of white Mercedes SUVs.

This striking contrast would not have existed had Rezaian’s unwashed bumbling government fools in Tehran not for decades cultivated the most capable minds among waves of Iraqi pilgrims.

Rezaian’s disdain reminds me of a life lesson I learned at the awkward age of 17 in Tehran. In a sponsored group of visiting American teenagers that I made friends with that summer, a Midwesterner named Paul had had enough of fancy swimming pool fun with catered meals.

Paul asked me to show him around the city and I obliged. I knew his Westernized upper middle-class host family were cocooned in the far north of Tehran. So I naively decided that with his curious mind he ought to see someplace more authentic. He thoroughly enjoyed our ride on a crowded un-air-conditioned bus and a leisurely walk in Abbasi, a tidy old-fashioned district in south Tehran with no private schools or mentions in traveler guidebooks.

That night, Paul called tearfully to say that his host family were extremely angry that he had seen (and, gasp, photographed) “an embarrassing neighborhood… dangerous…backward people”.

That was a wake-up call helping me realize that such condescension had few exceptions among the leading Westernized technocrats who ruled the country then.

Only two years earlier the most prominent among them, Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur, had been assassinated by an Islamist unknown. The politician had recently granted full immunity from possible prosecution to all US government personnel and their families stationed in Iran, who were on track to number in the thousands.

The year was 1967 and Paul’s humiliation, together with hushed conversations overheard at my high school, left me with a nagging feeling that the country was approaching tipping point for an upheaval of major proportions.

Rezaian would have enjoyed full freedom in pre-revolutionary Iran of those days without interference from its “unbathed” class. But because reporting from Tehran was more lucrative then, I suspect he would have lost out to more qualified correspondents in the race for silk rugs, caviar and more, courtesy of the PR-savvy royal court. I met a few of them at the world-renowned and avant-guarde Shiraz Arts Festival sponsored by Empress Farah.

But that era is gone. And given that a Euro-centric and class-infused blind spot pervades Rezaian’s memoir, one inescapable conclusion is that he hated imprisonment for more reasons than captivity.

Throughout Prisoner, his reasonable rejection of espionage charges is interlaced at every turn with utter contempt for officials whose humble backgrounds should have condemned them to invisible lives but somehow cheated fate and ended up in charge.

Not surprisingly, he was agitated by their regular reminders that he was being treated more humanely than were people of color in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo prisons or the streets of Ferguson, Missouri.

I, too, would have been beside myself if I were convinced – like Rezaian – that America is “born from freedom”.

Rostam Pourzal is a social anthropologist whose field studies have included gentrification in rural Iran. He writes about the politics of selective narrowly-defined human rights. His articles have appeared in Counterpunch, MR Online and FPIF. He advocates the inclusion of human needs — food security, shelter, health care and freedom from aggression — as demanded by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By this standard, austerity pushers and liberal interventionists should draw vastly more condemnation than they do.


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Jan 5, 2020 6:16 PM

Well written review and excellent analysis.

I am reminded of the Captive Nations (the Baltic nations) conferences held in 1974 Washington DC. I attended as a driver for a VIP. The ex-pat attendees were conspicuously wealthy. I did not make the connection at that time, that what they really wanted was to be able to return to exploit their home nations as their personal piggy banks. For the majority of the population, life was probably unchanged, whether the oligarchs or the Soviets were in control. Back then, the people were fed propaganda of imminent invasion from the West, now the people are fed propaganda of an imminent invasion from the East.
Still captive nations, now under NATO.

Tim Jenkins
Tim Jenkins
Oct 21, 2019 8:49 AM

Rostam: I have to tell you that this is unequivocally the best book review that I’ve ever read. Which may not mean much to you: but, I should mention that back in the 80’s when I first started working on media research and analysis, professionally for corporations, we had to read everything, from the South China Morning Post to the Cape Times, NYT IHT WSJ FT and all the dross in English and every single edition from first to last print, checking for any changes, getting the newspapers delivered by couriers, hot off the printing press late night/early hours of the morning, before they ever reached any shop or corner stand: and this process naturally also included reading every single book review: & ironically, one of my first colleagues, who I really enjoyed working with was Iranian and we’d ‘spot’ things for each other, to copy & re-read at leisure… Read more »

Martin Usher
Martin Usher
Oct 20, 2019 8:29 PM

His fate was no different from that of Maria Butina, Julian Assange or countless others. You fall foul of the state security apparatus and you become the property of individuals who need to be right in their suspicions. At that point truth and reality invariably disappear under a froth of concocted conspiracy. If the governments concerned are ‘ours’ then we can justify any abuse; if the government concerned is ‘theirs’ then our condemnation is loud and persistent.

I don’t know a great deal about Iran it appears that as a result of their revolution the new government took over the Shah’s notorious secret police (SAVAK) lock, stock and barrel to eventually build the new Ministry of Intelligence, aka the Islamic Republic’s notorious secret police (SAVAMA). (I’d guess that a lot of rank and file employees, the backbone of the organization, transitioned from one to the other. “Its a job.”)

Oct 20, 2019 11:25 AM

[Thought for the day: Uncle $cam to hang up his gunbelt?]

” James Speaks BTL Saker on October 19, 2019 · at 10:37 pm EST/EDT

In all seriousness, could a Trump-Gabbard [Anti War] ticket be beaten by anyone?

I know there are procedural difficulties, but there are no ideological ones. For there to be an ideological conflict, it would be necessary for Trump to acquire an ideology.”


Tim Jenkins
Tim Jenkins
Oct 21, 2019 8:13 AM
Reply to  vexarb

🙂 Vexarb: I was thinking exactly this (even said it more than a few times) and the curious thing is, Stevey Bannoné Danoné (of Milkman Culture) has also made the same suggestion, as ‘Man O To’ … The only problem I see, is that Tulsi is a still too young to fully comprehend how deep down the Deep State dives into people’s lives: and as a Major she’s been focussed on matters other then IT & Military intelligence, & is highly likely not yet capable of grasping how much everything-everything is steered & determined deep within huge DataBanks of Parallel Platforms, from many ‘stations’, including the NSA (check Bill Binney), with an agenda formulated in Algorithms, on behalf of the very Fascists that seek to hinder her within the absurdly named democratic party. Maybe Trump needs to speak to her directly & privately, that she may come ‘onside’, in the… Read more »

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 20, 2019 10:59 AM

Is there something wrong with off-guardian’s comment section? I get notification of new comments which I can’t see on the site – and I can’t see my own latest either.

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 20, 2019 7:15 PM
Reply to  George Mc

If I jiggle the comments so that the oldest comes first, then I can access all of them. Although it still only reads “5 comments” at the top.

Oct 20, 2019 9:04 AM

At the top is shows 10 comments; below only 3 are visible….

Oct 19, 2019 9:54 PM

There is a seemingly endless supply of these émigré whores, grifters, chancers, con men, opportunists, fraudsters, fantasists, and outright terrorists and criminals living high on the hog in the Beltway and sucking greedily on the US taxpayer teat, ever ready, willing and able to supply a Fifth Column for the latest Neocohen bombing, invasion, or Regime Change adventure. Karzai and the drug lords and warlords in Afghanistan. Chalabi and Curveball and their kind in Iraq. Lopez and Gweedo in Venezuela. Rezaian, the Shah’s family and the MEK in Iran. The dispossessed Cuban brothel owners of Miami. Gessen, Kasparov, Browder and Khordokovsky for Russia. Wei Wei and Wong for China. All that is needed is for them to be installed in power by US bombs and bayonets as Uncle Sam’s loyal local satraps and all will be well with the world. There is a comprador elite in South American and most… Read more »

Oct 19, 2019 9:40 PM

Excellent review. Thanks for making this available.

Oct 19, 2019 7:19 PM

Thank you. This struck me for various reasons. The most important one was my socializing in Munich, Bavaria, in the early 1990’s. Among the members of this rather affluent circle of friends were a number of exile Iranians. It was most difficult to separate our personal friendships from differing political views. For my Iranian friends – members of the Pahlavi family – there was no way to discuss politics relating to Iran. I respected that and at the only opportunity that would be given to me to ask questions, the answers were of course predictable. As a journalist, you will always have that little voice inside, curiously asking questions, inquiring especially about matters that are controversial. Catholic Bavaria granted a number of people refuge that were suffering from ‘non-catholic’ ‘regimes’. They needn’t be catholic themselves, but it would be helpful for sure. To condense the discussion we had into one… Read more »

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 19, 2019 9:12 PM
Reply to  nottheonly1

The MSM basically just gives you the world according to the rich. I caught a programme on RT a couple of weeks back in which those ever-so-sensitive billionaires were complaining about how persecuted they were. And – yup, they even had to wheel out the “I felt like a Jew in Nazi Germany” scam. I couldn’t help noticing that all these bozos (Bezos?) had the same look – the John Bolton look: like they are 400 years old but trying to look like teenagers.

Oct 19, 2019 9:43 PM
Reply to  George Mc

Yes, the world according to the rich. The reason why I have become cynical about their complaints being unjustly made responsible for the present dire straits. Through all of my (German and Hawai’ian) life, I have walked in an out of the wealthiest households. Those who are wealthy beyond imagination – lack imagination. They lack creativity. They lack empathy and integrity. They have everything – but no fear. The rich reject any responsibility for the present status, although it is the present status that made them rich. Everything that is ‘wrong’ with this world, is something they benefitted from. Their reign can only be explained with the subservience of the masses. The masses adore their rich and famous. They want to know everything about them – what they wear, were they go shopping, how much they spent, their new love interest, their new car, mansion and who they socialize with.… Read more »

Oct 19, 2019 10:23 PM
Reply to  nottheonly1

People like Philip Green made their money by loading businesses down with debt, asset stripping them, running them into the ground, and looting the pension funds. And paying himself a “special dividend” of £1,200 million, or rather paying it to his wife in Monaco, with not a penny piece in tax.

He is just one of many such spivs, vultures and parasites. You could give many similar examples. The Glazier brothers and Manchester United. They contribute nothing. They are just agents of parasitic finance capitalism, a looting kleptocracy, like vampires bleeding productive businesses white.

This is just financial manipulation and unproductive rent seeking. The old capitalist robber barons like Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, did at least leave something of value behind them, car plants, steel mills, oil refineries, railroads. These people create nothing of value.

Oct 20, 2019 12:36 AM
Reply to  mark

Yes. While reading your response I was reminded of the outrageous dismantling of Sears Roebuck by hedge fond guy Lambert. The way these leeches are operating is unfathomable. Another 100 stores will soon be closed. ‘Restructuring’ at its finest. Pale face is going down and with it people who don’t know how much money they have accumulated. And I remember the last scenes from ‘Citizen Kane’ with the huge warehouse full with stuff. Today, there is nothing, but digits in a virtual world left.

George Mc
George Mc
Oct 19, 2019 10:40 PM
Reply to  nottheonly1

I was going to object to your notion that the rich have no fear but then I realised that that comment does fit in with a suspicion I’ve had for a long time: that society is a tripartite structure. This is a notion I have seen alluded to in various writers – Orwell, Chomsky, Leo Strauss. It may even go back to Plato. These writers may not have exactly the same idea – and may have different evaluations but my “take” on it is as follows: There are three basic groups. At one end you have the superrich. At the other – the mass. And one thing these two have in common is that, as far as representation goes, both groups are invisible. You never see the true ruling class and, although you and I are part of the mass and our whole lives are spent among the mass, we… Read more »

Oct 20, 2019 12:19 AM
Reply to  George Mc

Coincidentally, I just listened to a song that states: “That’s just the way it is.”
Odd. But what you wrote is just the way it is. And the buffer class is indeed the slimey goo that glues the productive bottom layer to the decadent upper crust.

Oct 20, 2019 3:39 AM
Reply to  George Mc

there’s a certain range of opinion they are permitted to express. And how else could you generate the illusion of democracy and plurality? But the range of permitted opinion is severely limited. This in-between class do not have to be trained for this. They either catch on or they don’t. And if they don’t, you won’t be hearing much of them.

Noam Chomsky explains how it’s done:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

Oct 20, 2019 6:03 AM
Reply to  milosevic

there’s a certain range of opinion they are permitted to express.
Yes, and you would love to turn Off Guardian in a similar vein.

Oct 20, 2019 7:25 AM
Reply to  Antonym

try harder, zio-troll.

Tim Jenkins
Tim Jenkins
Oct 21, 2019 8:41 AM
Reply to  milosevic

I begin to trust Ant. more than you, Milosevic: and that’s truly saying something >>> for once Ant. may well have a truly valid point AND I fully expected you to comment on this book review, given the amount of free time you’ve had to turn up in this and every other comments section, gassing and casting doubt: you could even be the boss of the 77th Brigade or some similar agency, for all WE know about you … you could quite easily be the prime controlled opposition here @OffG, thinking back to your chequered history & varying changing styles of commentary. I’m glad I waited for your arrival here and did not publish the following draft on Saturday evening, which I shall now divide into two comments, one to the author and this is for you to pay attention to and the Moderation team. I hide nothing ! You,… Read more »

Oct 21, 2019 2:52 PM
Reply to  Tim Jenkins

I’ll have a chat with Balkydj, in the morning

— the various disinfo sock puppet personas claim to know each other. quelle surprise.

Tim Jenkins
Tim Jenkins
Oct 21, 2019 3:47 PM
Reply to  milosevic

Ahaaa, so we’re all disinfo. sock puppets, trolls & shills, all out gaslighting strawmen now: like ‘reinefrecheit’ used to suggest … in his madness. You begin to sound like Hillary Clinton, who would of course add that I’m “A Russian Asset” … keep it coming, you D’Boss and whilst you are here … ANSWER THE FUCKING QUESTION YOU DUMBFUK ! WHAT DISFUCKIN’INFORMATION ! SPIT IT OUT, SLOB. ! Oh, it appears you can’t, just more evasion from milosevic the C.O. >>> under suspicious circumstances already, during a cyber-attack: therefore, we must simply invert the reality of your wild dumbfuk accusations, insults & statements, (to anybody who questions you, the mighty Milo. and your M.O.), in order to know the Truth. Do please Carry on Shilling, coz’ it’s getting to be fun exposing you as controlled opposition, out of control … your bosses will not be too pleased, mind you, because… Read more »

Tim Jenkins
Tim Jenkins
Oct 21, 2019 9:46 AM
Reply to  milosevic

Milo: would you like Karin Heinitz’s email address ?

Would that be an illegal action on my part ?

Silly me, you must surely already have it, I reckon: would you like to write to her to enquire about Parallel Platforms & fore-warn her about the Security State @OffG servers? or shall I ? or should we leave this matter in the hands of OffG personnel. ?

You tell me. You D’Boss !
Acting like one !

Whilst yer’ here,


PetraL. / Flaxgirl cannot: maybe you can ?

Come on Slob. the questions are mounting up and I’m sure you know enough German to translate ‘Rache ist Suess’, without calling on your friends at google, to translate …

Oct 20, 2019 8:53 PM
Reply to  milosevic

You can fight a furious mock battle over whether we should be truly radical and let 1,001,000 illegal immigrants into the country.
Or whether we should be truly extreme and fascist and only let 999,000 illegal immigrants into the country.
Or whether we should be more moderate and let 1,000,000 illegal immigrants into the country.