Crisis Reporting Resource

Jason Rezaian: The covert “Project Avocado” and his imprisonment in Tehran 

The former Washington Post correspondent in Iran who endured 544 days of captivity in Tehran’s Evin prison engages in a discussion with iMEdD regarding the unfolding Middle East crisis. 

Listen to the full interview with Jason Rezaian, in episode 16 of the “SMALL TALK” podcast series.

On the 22nd of July, 2014, Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh, were preparing to leave their house in Tehran. Upon stepping out of the elevator, they were met by armed intelligence officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, their guns aimed at them. After being forced to return to their home, their apartment underwent a thorough search, before they were promptly transferred to prison.

Mr. Rezaian, a former correspondent for The Washington Post in Iran, endured a harrowing 544 days of detention in Evin prison, known for housing political dissidents and intellectuals under the regime. His wife, Yeganeh, a correspondent for Bloomberg News, was released after spending three months in solitary confinement. During his 18-month imprisonment, Mr Rezaian suffered extensive psychological pressure, which he described as torture.

Mr. Rezaian, holding both American and Iranian citizenship, was accused and found guilty of espionage against Tehran in a closed trial held in 2015.

Iranian authorities have tied his case to a covert US operation dubbed “Avocado,” which sought to surveil third-party nations on nuclear matters, including Iran. The reason? Mr. Rezaian had launched an online fundraiser, via the “Kickstarter” platform, to import avocados into Iran, a fruit previously unavailable in the country. When discussions and notes regarding avocados were discovered in his correspondence and computer, he became linked to the secret American operation.

In reality, the journalist’s detention served as a diplomatic leverage for the Islamic Republic amidst negotiations surrounding the nuclear deal involving Iran, the US, and the EU. Rezaian was eventually released on January 16, 2016, as part of a prisoner exchange agreement between Washington and Tehran, following behind-the-scenes negotiations involving US diplomats and the Rezaian family.

George Schinas, an iMEdD journalist, met with Jason Rezaian in Perugia during the International Journalism Festival in mid-April, prior to Rezaian’s participation in a panel discussion titled “The new nuclear landscape: reporting on nuclear weapons and security at the dawn of a new arms race.” They discussed Rezaian’s challenging days of detention, the introduction of avocados in Iran and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Jason Rezaian has authored a book titled “Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison” and launched a podcast named “544 days,” where he recounts his experiences in prison and provides insight into the behind-the-scenes negotiations for his release.