WASHINGTON -- Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has been held by the Iranian government since July on unclear charges, is receiving renewed attention as negotiations over Iran's nuclear program resume with the U.S. government.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a member of the Senate national security working group who last summer sponsored a resolution condemning the treatment of journalists in Iran and other countries, sent Secretary of State John Kerry a letter Wednesday asking him to "prioritize" Reziaian's case in the nuclear talks. The letter, provided exclusively to The Huffington Post, can be read here.
"I respectfully request that you redouble your efforts to secure Rezaian's release and prioritize his case in your discussions with Iranian officials," Casey wrote. "Iran's treatment of Rezaian is not only an affront to due process but to journalists around the world working in difficult environments."
Rezaian was arrested on July 22, along with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a journalist for the United Arab Emirates-based outlet The National. She was released on bail in October. Rezaian's detention was extended for up to two months on Dec. 3, and the reporter, a dual Iranian and U.S. citizen, was charged in an Iranian court on Dec. 7, though the charges remain unclear. Reports suggest that his physical and mental health are deteriorating in the prison cell where he has now spent months.
Casey's message about Rezaian -- which also asked Kerry to "unequivocally reject any efforts by the Iranian regime to use him as a pawn in other negotiations" -- was sent the same day the latest full round of nuclear diplomacy was held.
Representatives from the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Russia and China met Wednesday with negotiators from Iran in Geneva in their first round of conversations since failing to reach an agreement by their previous deadline of Nov. 24. The teams from the U.S. and Iran joined that larger meeting after two days of bilateral talks.
Negotiators now have until June 30, 2015, to try to hammer out a settlement. At that point, the temporary agreement that made the negotiations possible -- under which some sanctions on Iran have been relaxed in exchange for greater Iranian transparency on what that government describes as peaceful nuclear activity -- will expire.
Kerry said this month that he expects a deal months before that deadline, likely in February or March. The delay appears to be because Iran is insisting that U.S.-led sanctions targeting its economy be fully lifted, not simply suspended, before it takes irreversible steps toward dismantling uranium enrichment facilities and that the international community recognize its right to pursue industrial-scale enrichment.
Kerry said in a statement on Dec. 7 that he has raised Rezaian's case directly with Iranian officials multiple times, presumably in face-to-face interactions with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the nuclear talks, and was "personally dismayed and disturbed" by reports that an Iranian court had charged the journalist.
The reporter's fate has not been directly tied to the outcome of the nuclear negotiations. But Iran watchers have noted that his arrest may be a sign from the country's hard-liners, a re-assertion of their control in the face of warmer relations between the relatively moderate Iranian president and the U.S. due to the nuclear talks and the shared threat posed by the Islamic State.
"The Rezaian case involves much more than a journalist and his wife. The hard-liners are especially angry about President Rouhani’s attempt to reintegrate Iran into the international community," wrote Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, in an op-ed for The New York Times following Rezaian's arrest. "They disapprove of concessions they say the president is ready to make in the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program; confronting the West, they assume, is the way Iran can achieve regional importance,"
Esfandiari, a dual Iranian-American citizen like Rezaian, was arrested by the Iranian government and held in solitary confinement for more than 100 days in 2007 during a trip to visit her mother. In the op-ed, she described being pressed to expose U.S. plans to undermine the Iranian government.
"The security agencies manage to discover spies and foreign plots whenever an Iranian government seeks a rapprochement with the West," Esfandiari wrote.
Rezaian's family is calling for his release. His brother told HuffPost Live earlier this month that he believed Rezaian was a fair journalist who could not be accused of any "legitimate" charge. Rezaian's mother has appealed directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the reporter's freedom.
Iran is second only to China in its willingness to jail journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported this month.
Iran also is holding a former Marine, Amir Hekmati, who began a hunger strike and sent an open letter to President Barack Obama earlier this month. "I ask that you not forget me, Mr. President," Hekmati wrote.