The 544th Day | Episode 8 | Crooked Media
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October 19, 2021
544 Days
The 544th Day | Episode 8
10 Episodes


In This Episode

After a year and a half in prison, Jason leaves Evin. But that’s just the beginning of a crazy odyssey as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps tries one last time to scramble the deal to get Jason and Yegi out of Iran.



Jason Rezaian: Before we start, a warning: there are a lot of F-bombs coming your way, including some from very important people. Be prepared.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Previously on 544 Days:


[News clip] In Iran, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian has been convicted, although the details of his verdict remain unclear.


Yegi Rezaian: Shameless motherfuckers. They are willing to play with people’s life for what they want.


Ben Rhodes: And Obama said, look, we just need the biggest bang possible.


Brett McGurk: And I remember walking out of the Situation Room and Susan came up to me and she, like, grabbed me by my suit jacket and said, go get these guys home.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: On the morning of January 13th, 2016, I woke up before dawn. It was an ungodly hour, but Obama was about to give his last State of the Union address. I was pretty sure Iranian state TV would carry it live. My cellmate, Mirsani, wanted me to wake him up too, even though he never got up before 11. He didn’t understand much English, but he loved Obama. I turned on the TV. There was no sign of Obama yet, but something in the news crawl woke my sleepy ass right up. It said to U.S. naval ships had been captured in Iranian waters. Captured . . . by the IRGC. Holy fuck.


Jon Finer: I was sitting at my desk at the State Department.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Jon Finer, John Kerry’s chief of staff.


Jon Finer: And I get a call from one of the people who I worked very closely with in our intelligence community who monitor these things, saying something happened. Some number of American naval personnel now in Iranian custody.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Finer went and found Secretary Kerry in a meeting and whispered the news in his ear. He says Kerry called up Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and told him:


Jon Finer: Look man, if you don’t fix this and get these people released, not only is the nuclear deal not happening, and the prisoner conversations about releases that we’ve been discussing are almost certainly not happening, but we can very much be back in a position of kind of drumbeat to war in the United States, just given the military dimension of this.


[clip of President Obama] Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans . . .


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The State of the Union address started just a few hours after the sailors were captured. In the audience that night was my brother, Ali. It was his latest gambit to get attention for my case. Ali was hoping the president might say something about me, but Iran only got a brief mention.


[clip of President Obama] That’s why we built a global coalition with sanctions and principled diplomacy to prevent a nuclear armed Iran. And as we speak, Iran has rolled back its nuclear program, shipped out its uranium stockpile, and the world has avoided another war.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: No mention of me or the other American hostages. Ali was the only member of my family who knew about Brett McGurk’s secret negotiations to get me out, though he didn’t know about the details. He was hoping they might announce my release any minute.


Ali Rezaian: By that point I was there, it was kind of like always feeling like something could happen pretty quickly. My feeling was there was a possibility that, you know, you were going to be getting out.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Instead, we all had this new thing to worry about: the captured U.S. sailors. It seemed pretty obvious to my brother in Washington and to me in Evin, that if the U.S. could only get a certain number of hostages out of Iran, it would probably choose active duty service members.


Ali Rezaian: It seemed like a not a fantastically great addition to the, to the mix of things that were going on for them to grab these guys.


Jason Rezaian: I mean, I can tell you from where I was sitting, it’s like, oh my god, I’m fucked. I am totally fucked. I’m not going anywhere. Not only am I not going anywhere, this three-bed cell with one other guy, all of a sudden we are going to have six smelly sailors, you know, thrown in here with me.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Luckily for me and Mir, sorry, that’s not what happened. By this point, I figured I was going to get out any day now. And I knew that a million things could still go wrong, but I never expected what actually happened. The last 48 hours would turn out to be the most excruciating of the whole fucking saga. I’m Jason Rezaian and this is 544 Days. Episode 8: the story of how I got out and how everything almost fell apart.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Earlier in January, reporter Carol Morello was in a meeting in the newsroom of The Washington Post. She had been waiting to hear from the State Department on the details for Implementation Day, the day Kerry and Zarif would sign a bunch of papers and the nuclear agreement would finally go into effect.


Carol Morello: I would say in the weeks leading up to Implementation Day, the State Department was giving us only sort of vague hints on the timing. Wasn’t even sure where it was going to happen. What’s it going to be, Geneva? Was it going to be Vienna? I was planning on going to Geneva towards the end of the week until a couple of days before that, I was in the staff meeting and about five minutes into the meeting, I looked at my phone and I had gotten an email from someone in the State Department asking, are you coming to Geneva tonight? And I typed back, I’ll be there in a couple of days. And the person wrote back, call me. So I left the meeting, went to the phone, called the person who was in Geneva, who told me, you need to get here tonight. Jason is going to be let out. It may not happen tomorrow. It’ll probably be the day after but there’s a chance if you wait another day, you could miss it. So instead of going back into the meeting, I like looked around. You know, there were only a limited number of editors I could even talk about this story with and they were all in meetings, every single one. I had what I thought was the story that was of the most importance to The Washington Post and there was no one I could talk to you about who wasn’t in a meeting.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Carol went looking for Marty Baron, the executive editor.


Carol Morello: Fortunately for me, he was in a room that had glass walls, so I stood outside it directly in front of him. And when he looked up, I mouthed the words, I need to talk to you now.


Marty Baron: You know, Carol does not normally show up outside the glass walls of where we hold our news meeting, and it was clear that if she was there doing that, there was something important that was happening.


Carol Morello: He came out and I told him what was going on. And then I left. I flew overnight, I couldn’t sleep, and when I got there, I went to the hotel and had coffee with a State Department official and two other reporters who had been given a heads up. And they sort of walked us through what was going to happen over the span of a few hours. Zarif and Kerry were going to sign the papers that were implementing the JCPOA.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s the acronym for the nuclear deal.


Carol Morello: Kerry was going to sign a paper that would lift sanctions, more or less simultaneously a plane would leave Tehran with you and a few other Americans in it. And as soon as we got out of Iranian airspace, the United States would re-impose a bunch of sanctions, not the nuclear sanctions that were lifted, but they would add new human rights and terrorism sanctions, and they would also hand over to Iran over a billion dollars related to a settlement in a lawsuit dating to the Shah’s days, pre-revolutionary days.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That payment is the infamous “pallets of cash.” You might have heard about it. It’s the definition of a political football. And critics of the Iran deal continue to twist its meaning.


[voice clip] Unmarked cash in foreign currencies to be sent to a recognized state sponsor of terror.


[clip] The American people want to know. Did this administration pay ransom?


[clip of Donald Trump] We got our hostages back. And now we find out what we actually paid for the hostages, and it was in cash.


[clip of Mike Pence] No more pallets of cash to the mullahs in Iran.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: What these critics don’t understand or choose to ignore is that this money was never ransom. It has its own long back story. When the U.S. and Iran broke ties after the revolution, they needed a way to resolve disputes, of which there were many. So a U.N. tribunal was set up to hear these cases, and it’s worked for years. Billions of dollars have been paid back and forth and you probably never heard anything about it, until the nuclear deal. As part of the deal, the U.S. agreed to settle a debt. America owed Iran for fighter jets that Iran paid for in the late 70s but never received. On Implementation Day, the U.S. would start by paying the principal: $400 million. And it had to be in cash. You can’t just wire money to Iran because, sanctions. So there was literally a plane packed with cash ready to fly from Geneva to Tehran. All of this was going to happen on Implementation Day. And Carol Morello had to write the story about it.


Carol Morello: And I started like getting heart palpitations. You know, I was saying, oh my God, you know, what is my lead? You know, there’s like five huge stories that are all going to happen in the span of a few hours.


Jon Finer: All of that had to be done simultaneously on the same day, with only a very small number of officials from each government really having full visibility into everything that was happening. There were a whole range of things that went wrong.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The first person who started to see things going wrong was Brett McGurk.


Brett McGurk: So multiple, you know multiple threads are coming together at once.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: He was in a hotel in Geneva along with the Iranians he’d been talking with, the guys from the intelligence services. They were working out all the last-minute details of the prisoner exchange.


Brett McGurk: What got difficult was the sequencing.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Remember, the Iranians really wanted some of the prisoners the U.S. was releasing to fly back to Tehran. The optics mattered to them. They wanted these guys who were mostly dual nationals, like me, to go back to Iran, as pure propaganda. But none of them bid on that offer.


Brett McGurk: So they kind of had to swallow the fact that would happen. So then it really got into, well, okay, fine, then we’re not going to release the Americans until we know that our people are out, which was unacceptable to me. So I was very firm with them in these final days that until Jason and the main group are on the Swiss plane, which was sitting in the airport at this point, nothing is going to happen.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Around nightfall, on January 16th, a few days after Obama’s State of the Union, Kazem and I got in a van. We drove out of Evin prison. Kazem told me I was finally leaving, but we’d driven out so many times before: for court dates, that weird clothes shopping trip—every time they brought me right back. So it was almost impossible to believe this was really it. As we drove through Tehran on the way to the airport, Kazam gave me some unsolicited and unexpected advice: write your story, he said. Exaggerate if you have to. If you need to put horns on me. Whatever it takes to make money. It was bizarre to be getting tips from this pious soldier in the Islamic Republic’s war against the Great Satan. But Kazem was always full of surprises. We arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport and drove to a building set apart from the terminals. Kazem and my IRGC chaperons led me into a brightly lit and massive empty room. I recognized that place from TV. It was where foreign leaders met with Iranian officials when they arrived. I’d seen a video of Vladimir Putin in this very room not long before. Mom and Yegi were at the airport, too. They’d been waiting there all afternoon. My captors had told them they could come see me to say goodbye.


Yegi Rezaian: For many hours, we were wandering around in the streets because they told us, go stand near Terminal two. And they were saying, don’t go into the terminal, like stand outside.


Jason Rezaian: So they could see you, basically.


Yegi Rezaian: And also like, we don’t want people to recognize you. Something like that. And we are there until 6:30 p.m. Nothing happens. No one calls us. No one contacts us.


Mary Rezaian: Then we got a call telling us which terminal to go to and to find something to eat because they and you were running late.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Finally, they stopped messing around with them and brought Yegi and mom to the Putin room where I’d been waiting.


Yegi Rezaian: They told us that they going to take us one by one. They’re going to give each of us like maybe 15 minutes to hug you and kiss you and say goodbye and leave.


Mary Rezaian: You looking at me. We’re holding hands, your hands are freezing, and you’re looking at me and saying, is this actually happening? And I’m saying, yes, it’s happening. They can’t back out of this now. And then you wanted my commitment that I was going to remain in Iran with Yegi until she was released and we had, and that we could leave together and we had no idea how long that was going to be.


Yegi Rezaian: I was glad I was like, really, really deeply glad. I was not trying to show that I’m very glad because at the same time, I was desperately, deeply, very sad too, because you were going and I was worried and thinking about thousand other things in terms of where is he going? What if they poison him on the way? What if they stop him on the way? I cried a lot. It was like both happiness tears because I was like, oh, as soon as he’s gone, everything is finished. I mean, he’s free, and I know he’s going to do everything to get me.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: He was Yegi ordeal as far as she understood it: even though she’d been let out of prison more than a year earlier, our captors still had her passport, and they said she still faced criminal charges. So if Yegi wouldn’t be able to leave with me, the best insurance policy we could come up with was to have my mom stay in Iran to try to pressure the government to let Yegi go.


Mary Rezaian: I was making it very clear to them that this cranky old mother was going to be around as long as the daughter-in-law was.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: We said our goodbyes and mom and Yegi were taken away. I figured that was the last time I’d see them in Iran. Then I got another visitor, a sturdily built man with a shaved head and a really good suit. He identified himself as the Swiss ambassador to Iran, Giulio Haas. Ambassador Haas said he was there to check on. Remember, the U.S. has no diplomats based in Iran, so the Swiss are our eyes and ears there. Ambassador Haas asked me where my mom and Yegi were. I told him what Kazem had told me: that Yegi wasn’t allowed to leave yet. Then Ambassador Haas told me the truth: yegi freedom was part of the deal. She and my mom were supposed to be with me and we were supposed to all leave on the plane together. Now I knew that everything Kazem had told us about how they needed more time to resolve Yegi case, all that was just more of their bullshit. Back in Geneva, Brett McGurk was waiting for an update from the Swiss ambassador.


Brett McGurk: So I was in touch with Ambassador Haas, who was in Tehran airport. He went to visit you and I said great, and I said, How about Yegi? That’s when this then really got snagged.


Jon Finer: We’re sitting in a sort of anteroom waiting for the press to come in and photograph Secretary Kerry signing the documents that implemented the nuclear deal.  And I got a text on my phone from Brett saying, can you talk? And so I sort of stepped away as the press was coming in and photographing Secretary Kerry signing these forms and called him, and he told me that there was a problem related to your wife and your mother, and that the Swiss at least were not aware of where they were located at that time, and that the Iranians were saying that they were no longer or had never been part of the agreement, to get out of Iraq. Now that was contrary to every understanding that we believed had been reached with the Iranians that Brett was negotiating with, and that we had with Javad Zarif when we had had the conversations with him about what the terms of the negotiation were.


John Kerry: We were sitting there, I was in the room. I would sign certain things until we had the sign off. I had, I needed a in-the-air, wheels-up call from Brett McGurk to make it clear where we were. And we suddenly learned that your wife wasn’t with you and nobody knew where she was.


Jon Finer: What we did at that point was Javad Zarif had gone to the U.N. headquarters in Vienna ahead of us to do his press conference separate from us. But we raced over right away so we could get there before he was finished and we pulled him aside and said, what is going on?


John Kerry: And I said, man, I’m telling you, if you guys want to blow it, you’re on the road to blowing it. This is the way to do it. And I said, we’ve got to have this done and put together within the next hour or so or this is in serious trouble.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Secretary Kerry made clear that until we got out, me and Yegi, the plane with the $400 million in cash was going to sit on the tarmac in Geneva.


Jon Finer: At last as I read his face, he was shocked by this news, too. And I think fully appreciated in the moment the kind of severity and the gravity of what could transpire if we were not able to find your wife and mother, get them on that plane, and get them out of Iran that night.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Mom and Yegi hadn’t disappeared. I’d just seen them at the airport right before Giulio Haas came to check on. But now, no one on the outside had any clue where they were. At the White House, everyone was following the action in Tehran and Geneva, trying to figure out what had gone wrong.


Ben Rhodes: Everything is at stake.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: That’s Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.


Ben Rhodes: There will be no payment in the resolution of this claims issue. I think the overarching message that we wanted to convey from Obama through all those various interlocutors is if you don’t get this unstuck at the airport, everything else could fall apart.


Lisa Monaco: I remember thinking, you know, is this kind of an 11th hour gambit—


Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is Lisa Monaco, the Obama adviser who’d been helping Brett McGurk


Lisa Monaco: —to kind of upset the entire operation here? And was this potentially other forces at work within Iran who were not happy about the resolution of the nuclear deal, of the humanitarian exchange, etc.? My mind went to the darkest corners.


Brett McGurk: they were trying to hold Yegi back. I have no question about it. I was just insistent because I had negotiated this thing and we put Yegi in the deal specifically for this reason. We knew if they let you out, they would, who knows what they would do with her. So this is exactly why she was written into the deal. And so I was not under any circumstances going to give up on that.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The Iranians wanted to keep Yegi because she was the last bargaining chip they held. As I learned from watching my dad haggle over rugs, you don’t give away anything unless you really have to.


Brett McGurk: So the Iranians are on a floor kind of two floors below me in a hotel. And so the way this would work is, I’d get a note that they want to see me or vice versa, and we would then meet in a conference room, or sometimes I would just go right down and bang on the guy’s door. But you know, it’s was a hotel and, I’ll just never forget this, like we are in a pretty heated argument and someone like popped their head out their hotel door who was there on vacation or something enjoying Lake Geneva, like what? And complaining to the hotel staff about this ruckus. Little does he know there’s like this very high-stakes international diplomacy going on. So I went downstairs. This is now at nighttime. I went to see my counterpart. I could tell he was very uncomfortable. Could have been an act but I actually thought it was pretty sincere because we had negotiated a written agreement with Yegi in the deal. Right? So his reputation, integrity is on the line with me. And I said, hey, what is going on? And he said, you know, Brett? I’m sorry, but Yegi has an outstanding case. We’ll work it out in a matter of days. And I kind of lost it with the guy. I told him, of course, none of your people are getting out unless you get Yegi on a plane and you find her, nothing’s happening. I’m not leaving this room until you get these people on a plane. You call whoever you need to call into Tehran right now. You know, you say you’re the big shot. You hold the prison keys. You’re the man. So call whoever you got to call, right now. But the question was like, where is she? And I really, because we couldn’t find her, that kind of, it was the worst, it was like the worst-case scenario.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: I was still at the airport, hadn’t slept for about 40 hours. I was so close to getting out, but I could also imagine so many different ways they could come up with to slam the door in my face. And Kazem just kept feeding me lies, saying Yegi had never been part of the deal, that time was running out and that if I didn’t get on the plane now they’d take me right back to prison. He said “your wife will leave very soon, we will try to help her.” Just like you’ve been helping me since the beginning? I asked him. Fuck you. Now that Ambassador Haas had told me the real story, I made it clear I wouldn’t be getting on any plane until Yegi and my mom were there with me. So Kazem went back to sitting and waiting in that big empty room at the airport. Back at the White House, Ben Rhodes was trying to decide what to tell the press, and when.


Ben Rhodes: Some of this started to leak out. The, what you do when information is leaking out to the press, if you don’t want people to report it, you have to give them something so that they won’t report it. I’m thinking, well, how do I buy time? And so what I did is I did a briefing for them where I said, Look, I’m going to give you the whole story, but you can’t print this until we tell you, you know, it’s OK. And so that kind of starts the clock running. It’s almost like you feel like sand is running through an hourglass. The secret is out of the building, it’s out in the world, and I’m starting to hear that Jason’s plane is not taking off. They can’t find Jason’s family. And suddenly, the very real prospect is that this whole thing might fall apart. That could blow up everything. I mean, they could blow up the nuclear deal at this point because everything was kind of linked. And so my strong preference had been have Obama go out and make a statement but little decisions like whether or not to say we’re calling a lid at the White House. A lid is when you say no more statements at the White House that night, felt infused with all this drama because we can’t put Obama out yet and so we should tell people to go home and not to expect a statement if this whole thing goes off the rails. So it was about as stressful an evening as I’ve had in the White House.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Obama went out to dinner that night with the first lady. It was Michelle’s birthday. But Lisa Monaco remembers, he was still checking in.


Lisa Monaco: And I just remember the constant requests. The president wants an update. The president wants an update. And we kept hoping that we could tell him it was wheels-up.


Brett McGurk: But, you know, for a few hours there we didn’t have any updates because the Iranians went dark.


Ben Rhodes: I was kind of shuffling back and forth from the Oval Office to Susan Rice’s office. She’s talking to Brett. Brett had the perfect demeanor for this day because Brett is always calm, and Brett is just giving us these assurances, like this will get done. I know how this looks. Don’t worry, I’m here. You know, and you have no idea where he is exactly or who he’s talking to on the other line. But he exuded calm. Whether that was justified or not, it helped chill people out, like Susan, who was about to jump into the phone. And, you know, who’s cursing and what the fuck? And this is not what we’re fucking told, and you tell them this and that. And Brett’s just saying, I know it’s going to work out, we just got to do this last piece.


Brett McGurk: And oh, the Iranians were also—you talk about shenanigans—they had started to leak in the press that you guys were free, but you weren’t free.


[news clip] Iran state television says the government has freed four dual nationality prisoners, and a source close to Iran’s judiciary tells The Associated Press that Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian is among that group.


Brett McGurk: I started getting a flood of congratulatory emails from everybody who knew that I was kind of working on this. And I just remember putting my phone away and like, I couldn’t even read emails because it was driving me crazy.


Ali Rezaian: At some point we started getting calls and messages from people saying, Oh, look, I hear Jason’s out, I’m like, Jason’s not out.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: This is Ali again. He was in Geneva, too, because he’d heard that I’d be getting out.


Ali Rezaian: I mean, I had one large news organization like call me up and I got on the phone with him, and like we want you to confirm this. I’m like, I’m not going to confirm it, I don’t believe that’s the case. We talked for a couple of minutes and they are like, so you can confirm that Jason’s been released? I’m like I told you, exactly the opposite of that and if you publish that, I said anything to that effect, I’m going to go off on you because it’s not, it’s not true.


Brett McGurk: The Iranians are, they’re using this press play that everybody’s free and everything is great to try to embarrass us. So this was going on and was incredibly nerve wracking, and I thought we were cooked when we couldn’t find Yegi. I remember Kerry saying to me, well, don’t you have her phone number? And I said, well, you know, no, because she lives in Tehran. I’m not calling people in Tehran, right? I’m just not.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: So that’s because Brett knew there was a good chance Iranian intelligence would be listening in.


Brett McGurk: So I said, look, I’m going to call Ali and just tell him, you know, what’s going on.


Ali Rezaian: You know, I got a message from Brett that they’re trying to get Yegi and mom and couldn’t find him, and I’m like, they went to the airport. You know, that’s what I’ve been told, they’re at the airport. So you know, the process I’m we’re going through is like, how can I find mom and Yegi, right? I mean, how can I find out where they’re at?


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Since Yegi was released from prison, Ali had been our only source of information about what was being done to free us. Although he wasn’t telling her very much, he’d promised Yegi that whatever happened to me, she would be part of the deal. But the goons at the IRGC always insisted otherwise, and Ali wasn’t going to risk giving Yegi or my mom a lot of details. He could never know who might be listening in. And it could blow up Brett’s talks. so Yegi and mom didn’t know what to believe. After they said goodbye to me at the airport, they figured that was that.


Yegi Rezaian: And I assumed, OK, we’re done.


Jason Rezaian: Yup, I’m going home and going to bed.


Yegi Rezaian: I’m going home.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: And that’s what I thought at the time, too. But instead, our captors led them to another room and locked them in.


Mary Rezaian: We were there for a very, very, very long time.


Yegi Rezaian: By midnight, I realized, oh, we’re not going anywhere. And a female guard who’s going to watch us, she was like, maybe wait for half an hour, 45 minutes, they’re going to come and get you. This is like 3:00 a.m. By 3:00 a.m. I was angry.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Mom and Yegi spent the whole night at the airport without their phones. Yegi’s interrogators, Siamak had confiscated them.


Mary Rezaian: Then around five o’clock in the morning, they said, OK, it’s finished, they’ve taken off. You can leave now.


Yegi Rezaian: Siamak said, go home and have a nice breakfast, It’s over. Mr. Jason left, and he said you might be able to leave with him, too, but he whispered that into my ear. No one else around heard that. So as soon as we sat in the car, I thought to myself for one second, wait a minute, two things. First, yes, I am going or I should have been going. And two, you might be able to go with him means he’s not gone yet. So I need to get information. Who can I get information? My mom doesn’t have that information. Your mom doesn’t have that information. The only one who might know is your brother.


Mary Rezaian: They gave me back my phones, which were really running on empty.


Yegi Rezaian: So I turned on your mom’s phone and we saw that we had over like 40 different missed calls from your brother.


Ali Rezaian: And once they left the airport, Yegi answered the phone. When I got on the phone with Yegi, I’m like, where the fuck are you? She’s like, well, we’re in a taxi going home. Jason’s leaving. And I’m like, no, you’re supposed to be on the airplane. So basically, it became clear that Brett was going to have to get somebody to go and pick them up.


Jason Rezaian: And so you’re playing telephone kind of between Brett McGurk—


Ali Rezaian: And, and people on three other different continents trying to find them. So Brett says we’ll get the Swiss to pick them up. We’ll set up a time, we’ll get in touch with them directly to do it. Get me their number. So I said, OK, fine. So I got Brett and Yegi’s number. I got back on the phone with Yegi and said, Yegi, you guys need to be ready to leave immediately. And she said, well, how are we going to know? I said, well, this guy, Brett is going to call you up. He’s the guy who’s doing this. She’s like how am I going to know that this is the right guy and it’s not somebody, you know, pretending to be him?


Jason Rezaian: Yegi had no idea who Brett was. While he’d been negotiating, it would have been dangerous for him to contact my family members inside Iran.


Ali Rezaian: And I said, all right, well, I’m just to tell him to say something, you know? Like a code word. And what I was trying to do is come up with something that we were talking on a telephone, right? So I knew that the Iranian government could hear all of it. So I, like the first thing that I thought of was like when we were in Thailand, like everywhere we went, she eating mango sticky rice. So I said, he’s going to tell you the name of your favorite dessert.


Yegi Rezaian: And I hung up the phone, I’m like, what is my favorite dessert? Is it chocolate? But I was asking your mom Mary Jaan, what is my favorite dessert? She’s like Jaanem. I think it’s chocolate ice cream. I was like Mary Jaan, that’s your favorite. Then I thought, I mean, the last time we saw each other, we were in Thailand. On every stop I had mango sticky rice. Even the nights that you guys had real food like fried fish and curry, I had mango sticky rice for my dinner.


Mary Rezaian: And before very long the phone rang.


Yegi Rezaian: I said, Hello, who’s this? And obviously the voice didn’t introduce himself, just said mango sticky rice. And then the voice said, I’m calling you to say that don’t trust anyone except for the Swiss ambassador. Pack your bag by 9 a.m. Swiss ambassador will come and get you.


Brett McGurk: So I called Ambassador Haas, gave him the address, and he said, I’ll take care of it.


Mary Rezaian: So then we got ready. And then the Swiss arrived with two huge SUVs and we drove like the demons were following us. You know, we had the Swiss flags flying on the front of the car.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Back in Geneva, Brett McGurk was waiting for a call from Ambassador Haas to say that we were getting on the plane.


Brett McGurk: So then kind of things got dark again for a number of hours until the next day. The sun comes up. You know, the Swiss set up a little breakfast thing for us and the Iranians. And like, at this point, we really don’t want to see each other, we’re all kind of mingling in the room. My counterpart is at this point, fairly confident that things are going to move, but not 100%. And it was excruciating because 30 minutes go by, an hour goes by, 90 minutes goes by. Well, why aren’t they getting on the plane?


Yegi Rezaian: In the meantime, IRGC is going through all of my bags. Everything. And this guy came in, is arguing with Ambassador Haas that I have to take her through the special section because she doesn’t have passport, da da da. He’s saying, No, I’m not letting her go anywhere.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: The Iranian officials separated Ambassador Haas from Yegi and mom. They claimed they had to process Yegi through a special office in the airport because she had no passport.


Yegi Rezaian: I mean, they didn’t have any problem, they were just not sure what to do. You know, it’s like, first of all, in bureaucracy everywhere in the world, it takes a long time. But also, there were so many hands in [unclear]. This guy says, yes, this guy says no. This guy says maybe. Everyone was waiting for someone else to decide. They didn’t want to be the first decision maker if something goes wrong on their watch.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Through all this, I’ve been sitting in that same big room at the airport. Kazem was there, too. We were both exhausted. Around 4:00 a.m., he came over and told me, Jason, you won? I asked him, what do you mean I won? He told me he was a chess player and he said, I’m very competitive. I like to win. But when I lose, I accept it. He went on to say that Yegi and I were both getting out, together. Sure, it was a victory. But for us, it was tragic too. Kazem said that neither one of us could ever come back to Iran. I was led away towards the exit. A handful of my captors were there. I stared at Kazem for a long time. Until we both smiled. Then I did a crazy thing. I hugged him.  And he hugged me back. It seemed like the only way to end the strangest relationship in my life. Finally, Yegi and my mom arrived. They put us on a white van to take us to the plane. The other American hostages flying home with me that day were already in the van. The pastor, Saeed Abedini, and the Marine, Amir Hekmati.


Yegi Rezaian: Oh my god, I’m so shaking. I feel so weak. Like, like, I’m like melting.


Jason Rezaian: We were in the van for what? Like 90 seconds?


Yegi Rezaian: I mean, maybe a minute or two, but everyone was so scared. So I remember I was the most excited one. So I’m smiling at these guys. Like, how are you doing that? [unclear]


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Meanwhile, Ambassador Haas had gone to the tarmac to wait by the plane.


Brett McGurk: And I have no way to get in touch with you. Haas by is the plane. And what happened is Ambassador Haas would call me, Brett, a bus is coming, I see the bus, here it comes. I think this is, I can see it. This must be them. They are now about 200 meters away, 100 meters. Here it comes. Oh, it’s not, it’s not them. That bus is still going. It’s like that happened a couple of times. [laughs] You know? And I haven’t slept in a few days. And he called me, I think a third time, Brett, OK, I know that I’ve done this a couple of times, I see another bus coming. He describes the bus. He says there’s little kind of coverings on the windows or something, and the door opens and he says, I see Saeed, I see Amir, I see Jason. And I remember when he said, I see Yegi. Like my heart just kind of, it’s just a moment of relief.


Mary Rezaian: And we were driven to the tarmac and to a very spiffy Swiss Air Force jet.


Yegi Rezaian: There were cameras of Islamic Republic filming us and I was really shaky because it was really cold and I was really tired and I was really worried that at any minute they can pull me out of this. There’s no guarantee that they let me go with no passport or paper, any I.D., anything.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: One of the Swiss diplomats met us at the plane and shook Yegi’s hand.


Yegi Rezaian: He reached out and held my hand, and he realized I was really shaking and he told me, it’s fine, this airplane is Swiss soil. You get on that, you’re going to be safe.


Brett McGurk: And once they’re on that plane, they’re out of Iran’s jurisdiction. So per our agreement, I then hit go on our side of the arrangement, the people getting out of prison, I think there are three getting out of prison, other sentences commuted and things, your plane is then kind of free to go.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Brett was waiting for us at the airport in Geneva, sitting in a van on the tarmac.


Brett McGurk: Until your plane was out of Iranian airspace, I was still concerned that the IRGC and the air control tower or something would say, hey, turn the plane around. So we sat in a, in a van, the American team, watching this app as your, as the plane kind of moved over the border of Iran. And then once you’re outside of Iranian airspace, then we knew that you’re on your way to Geneva.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: After we had been in the air for an hour or so, the representative from the Swiss Foreign Ministry announced that we safely left Iranian airspace. He opened a bottle of champagne. I was so fucking tired, but not so much that I couldn’t lift the glass.


Brett McGurk: And then it was a few hours later when I was on the tarmac and had the chance to greet you.


Jason Rezaian: You said, someday, I’ll tell you guys the story of these last 24 hours.


Brett McGurk: Yeah.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Brett finally told me this story after Yegi and I got back home and began building our new lives together. I couldn’t believe how much drama was going on behind the scenes while I waited at that airport. And how close we actually were to being separated again.


Brett McGurk: There is no question in my mind that what they were trying to do at the end was to maybe let you go but keep Yegi. I think she would still be there as some propaganda tool that they would try to just toy with. That’s what was going on it. No questions. I, in this line of work you second guess a lot of things. I don’t second guess a single thing that we did in these final weeks.


Jason Rezaian, narrating: Coming up: the final episode. What’s it like to come home after 544 days as a political hostage?


544 Days is a Spotify original podcast from Gimlet, Crooked Media in A24. It’s hosted by me, Jason Rezaian. Our senior producer is Matt Frassica. Julie Carli is our associate producer. Our editor is Alison MacAdam, with fact checking by Amy Tardif. Mixing and sound design by Emma Munger. Additional sound design by Josephine Holtzman of Future Projects. Our theme music is by Ramtin Arablouei, and have more original music by Ramtin and Emma Munger. Additional music by Peter Leonard and Bobby Lorde. Production support from Sydney Rapp, Gabi Mrozowski and Renita Jablonski. The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Jess Lubben, Lyra Smith, Alison Falzetta, Colin Campbell and Lydia Polgreen. Special thanks to Tommy Vietor, Ravi Nandan, Claire Sankey, Dan Behar, and Jan Hahn.