LANDSTUHL, Germany — Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter who was freed Saturday after almost 18 months of incarceration in an Iranian prison, met with Post editors Monday for the first time since his release and said he was “feeling good” physically as he recovers in a U.S. military hospital here.
Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron and Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl said Rezaian “looked good” during their two-hour meeting in a conference room at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center near the Ramstein Air Base.
Rezaian, 39, was freed Saturday from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. He was flown out of Iran on Sunday along with two other freed Iranian Americans as part of a prisoner deal with Iran linked to the implementation of a landmark nuclear agreement.
Baron and Jehl said Monday evening that the face-to-face meeting so soon after Rezaian’s return was an encouraging sign. Doctors and psychiatrists at the hospital are still assessing Rezaian’s health after the ordeal, and the recovery process in similar cases can take months or years.
“I want people to know that physically I’m feeling good,” said Rezaian, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans provided to him on board the Swiss plane that flew the released prisoners to freedom. “I know people are eager to hear from me, but I want to process this for some time.’’
Also released in the deal were former Marine Amir Hekmati, 32, of Flint, Mich., and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, 35, of Boise, Idaho. Accompanying Rezaian on the flight were his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and his mother, Mary Rezaian. A fourth Iranian American released as part of the arrangement, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, opted to remain in Iran. An American student who was freed separately, Matthew Trevithick, 30, flew out Saturday on his own.
Abedini had been imprisoned since July 2012 for organizing home churches. Hekmati spent more than four years behind bars on spying charges following his arrest in August 2011 during a visit to see his grandmother.
The historic nuclear accord with Iran dropped economic sanctions against the country and returned tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets in exchange for restrictions and tighter safeguards on Iran’s nuclear program.
Members of Hekmati’s family and a congressman from their Michigan district met with Hekmati at the U.S. military hospital for about 15 minutes Monday, the family announced in a statement accompanied by photos of the reunion. Those meeting with the former Marine included his brother-in-law, Ramy Kurdi; his sisters, Sarah and Leila Hekmati; and Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.).
On Monday, Rezaian described months of extraordinarily limited human interaction, and said that at one point he spent 49 days in solitary confinement. Later, he was put in a 15-by-20-foot room with three cots and no mattresses. For exercise, he said, he would walk for up to five hours every day around an 8-by-8-foot concrete courtyard.
Rezaian also talked about some of the conditions of his detention, which Baron and Jehl said they could discuss only partially. For most of his time in prison, Rezaian said he was being held by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, a military force aligned with hard-liners in the government that answers to Iran’s supreme leader and acts independently of the presidency.
Even when Rezaian was brought to hospitals, twice for eye infections and once for a groin infection as his health suffered in prison, they were facilities run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
There were concerns that Rezaian could be used as a bargaining chip by hard-liners in the Iranian government who wanted to derail talks over the nuclear deal.
It was only in the final hours of his incarceration that Rezaian said he was transferred to the Ministry of Intelligence, a body more closely allied with President Hassan Rouhani.
Even once the nuclear deal had been announced, Rezaian’s own departure from Iran was “touch and go until the last minute.” The plane was delayed for hours, and U.S. officials were privately concerned that the deal had gone bad. Those hours, Rezaian said, were “hugely stressful.”
“I was not handed over to the Swiss until I was actually on the plane,” he said. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran in the absence of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington.
When the plane finally took off, the passengers — including Rezaian, the other released Iranian Americans, and Rezaian’s wife and mother — burst into applause. When they left Iranian airspace, the passengers applauded again.
Later on Monday, Rezaian was permitted to leave the hospital for several hours to meet at a nearby Fisher House guest house with his brother, Ali Rezaian, along with his wife, mother and his visiting congressman, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.).
”I want to thank my family, especially the efforts of my brother Ali, and my wife in Iran and my mother everywhere she was,” Rezaian said. “They have been incredible. I also want to thank everybody at The Post and my colleagues in other media as well, as well as everybody in the U.S. government who played an important role in my release.’’
Once the Americans had left Iran, the Obama administration announced new sanctions related to participation in Iran’s ballistic missile program. The sanctions, which applied to 11 people and companies, were issued under U.S. restrictions that remain in place despite the lifting Saturday of international sanctions linked to Iran’s nuclear program.
U.S. and European officials lifted the harshest economic sanctions against Tehran after the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog certified that Iran had fully complied with promises to curtail key parts of its nuclear program. Hours before diplomats in Vienna heralded the official activation of the nuclear deal, Iran confirmed the release of Rezaian and the other American detainees, set free in exchange for U.S. clemency offered to seven Iranians charged or imprisoned for sanctions violations and the dismissal of outstanding charges against 14 Iranians outside the United States.
Calling a recent missile test by Iran a “violation of its international obligations,” President Obama said Sunday that the United States “is imposing sanctions on individuals and companies working to advance Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
The Treasury Department said the new sanctions apply to, among others, the Mabrooka Trading Co., based in the United Arab Emirates, and its networks based in that Persian Gulf country and in China. It said they have used front companies to deceive foreign suppliers about the true end-users of “sensitive goods for missile proliferation.”
The Iranian government and military reacted angrily Monday to the new sanctions, saying they show continued U.S. hostility toward Iran and vowing defiantly to further develop Iran’s missile program.
Iran’s defense minister, Revolutionary Guard Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, accused Washington of demonstrating “hatred toward the Iranian nation” with its “useless attempts to weaken Iran’s defense power.” He said Iran’s missile industries “are fully home-made” and impervious to sanctions, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.
Dehghan said Iran would expand its program by “unveiling new missile achievements soon.”
The Iranian Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “Iran’s missile program has not been designed for carrying nuclear weapons at all, and therefore it doesn’t violate any international rule.”
Separately, Rouhani, the Iranian president, pledged to the visiting chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency that Iran would “never” pursue nuclear weapons, even without the intensified safeguards imposed by the newly implemented nuclear deal.
“We will be committed to the fact that our nuclear program is peaceful and will never deviate to weapons,” he told Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in a meeting in Tehran, the Mehr News Agency reported.
In Landstuhl, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.), who arrived Monday as part of a welcoming delegation for Abedini, said he joined in campaigning for Abedini’s freedom after hearing Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, speak at a church in Charlotte about the case. Naghmeh is expected to arrive Tuesday, he said.
Pittenger said by telephone from the hospital grounds that he had not seen Abedini but that he had been briefed that all the freed hostages were “generally speaking, in pretty good condition.”
“Physically, at least,” he added.
Pittenger said doctors would test for communicable diseases to see if any of the patients needed to be isolated, followed by “longer-term evaluations and analyses with the doctors and psychiatrists.”
“Particularly with Saeed, it was three and a half years in that kind of condition,” he said. “It’s going to have an emotional impact of a serious nature.”
There are no estimates on when the men may be discharged from the hospital.
“I’m told that when people come here, they spend from five to 10 days,” Pittenger said. “It can be shorter, but having been in isolation, and mental torture for three and a half years, I don’t think they’re going to jump out of here real quick,” he said.
In a telephone call with the Post’s editors before they were able to meet Monday, Jason Rezaian said that isolation was the most difficult part of his time in prison. Still, snippets of information had made it back to him, among them that his Christmas greetings conveyed via his mother from prison had “made the rounds and reached everybody, which is what I intended.”
He also said that he found escape in the novels that he was allowed to read while in prison facing trial for spying.
Rezaian’s health was reported to have suffered from poor conditions at the prison and a lack of medicine for his high blood pressure. Family members earlier this year said that he had lost weight and suffered from back pain, and chronic eye and groin infections.
He told the editors in the early Monday phone call that his health had improved in the past several months.
Evin Prison, where Rezaian was held, has been used for decades by both Iran’s Islamic revolutionary government and the monarchy it overthrew in 1979 to incarcerate — and, human rights groups say, abuse — political prisoners. Rezaian was tried in secret there last year on charges including espionage and sentenced to an unspecified prison term.
The plane carrying the three freed prisoners left after an overnight delay stemming from what U.S. officials said was a misunderstanding among Iranian officials at the airport about the passenger manifest — specifically, whether Salehi and Mary Rezaian were supposed to be on the plane.
The release of prisoners had not been officially part of negotiations between Iran and the six world powers: the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany. But U.S. officials frequently raised the plight of imprisoned Americans during last year’s nuclear talks.
The Obama administration had come under heavy criticism for concluding the nuclear accord without winning the release of American detainees, including Rezaian, whose 544-day detention was the longest for a Western journalist in Iran. White House officials confirmed that the prisoner deal was clinched during months of secret talks that gained momentum in the days before the nuclear pact was formally implemented Saturday.
Morello and Branigin reported from Washington. Hugh Naylor in Beirut, Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.