Marin Academy welcomed Jason Rezaian ’94 back to campus this spring to speak to our students. Jason lives in Iran and serves as the only American citizen licensed as a permanent member of the local foreign press. He has contributed to several newspapers and magazines, including The San Francisco Chronicle, TIME, Slate, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy and is now The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran. He is the writer, executive producer, and narrator of the feature-length documentary on Iran, A World Between.
1. How did you end up in Iran?
My father was Iranian. My mom was mixed European American—Slovenian and Italian, from Chicago. They met at San Francisco State in the 60s, and moved to Marin soon afterwards. They have lived here ever since, but I had a real curiosity about that part of the world and that part of my own background. During college and the first years afterwards, I had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. I switched colleges several times. After the second switch, I had a gap of eight or nine months trying to figure out what to do.
I had been studying Spanish since I was a student at Marin Country Day School. I studied here at MA with John Petrovsky, and wanted to take it to a more advanced level. I talked with David Denman in Sausalito, who was an educational consultant specializing in the gap year—I hope he’s still around. He recommended that I do a semester in Spain, but before that, do a shorter, intensive course in Cuba. Which I did. It was difficult, but an incredible experience. I was able to see other cultures, and I started thinking about connecting to my own past. I got that itch out of my system and met the family in Iran in 2001.
Then I realized how fascinating the country is—and in the US we hardly know anything about it. What we do know is often wrong—the way we look at things is not accurate. I thought, if I can get into Iran, I’ll be able to work there and do something meaningful. I knew I wanted to be a journalist. This has been an 11-year odyssey—I would go for several months, come back, worked in my family’s business to raise money to go back. My dad was in the Persian rug business in Petaluma. Business was so bad in 2008/2009 and I was losing lots of money and time. I told myself that I was going to move to Iran, picked a date 6 months out and stuck to it. It happened to be right before the election in Iran that is still being disputed. I haven’t been out of work since—I have been writing consistently ever since for lots of different publications.
2. Was it easy for you to be able to live in Iran?
I am a citizen, so I can come and go. One piece of the puzzle was getting exemption from the military—all Iranian males need to do military service, no matter where you were born or raised. There are levers in place for people like me to get an exemption. But it’s not like here where you pick up the phone—you have to physically go to a place many times and convince them many times that you are who you say you are. I just spent lots of time there. I had no real medical excuse. Based on my father’s age at the time, it worked out. If the father is a certain age and has one son who is eligible he can automatically get an exemption—the government doesn’t want the family to lose the breadwinner. Without that, I was limited to one entry into the country for up to 90 days. Getting the exception made it possible to come and go. It has served me so well over the years. The way that dual citizenship works is that the US doesn’t really recognize the second citizenship unless it is British, but it doesn’t say that you can’t have a second passport. When I’m here, I’m American; when I’m in Iran, I’m Iranian. There is no American embassy in Iran, so if anything happens to me, I’m subject to the laws there—which is probably why my beard has gotten white.
3. What’s it like to be a journalist in Iran?
I think of myself of a journalist and analyst, primarily. There are a lot of people who work in this field who are activists—I don’t consider myself in that way. There is a lot of suspicion on both sides—when you show up at SFO with Iran on your passport, they are interested. Likewise in Tehran. I’m the only American journalist working in Iran with permission from the Iranian government.
It’s fascinating, never boring. I feel like I have a window into a very important time that very few people have. With that comes a lot of responsibility, and I don’t want to screw it up. And I don’t think I have. I feel like…I don’t want to say lucky because I’ve been working towards this for a dozen years. But I feel really happy that plan has come to fruition. If you think about things ahead of time and do your due diligence and planning and are realistic and honest about limitations and skills and attributes that you have and don’t have, you can do a lot in this life. I’m just really enjoying it. When I look at the geopolitical situation, I cringe, but in my own role in this, I’m very satisfied.
4. There hasn’t been a lot of incentive for Americans to be global in many ways. What do you think about this?
I think that there are lots of stereotypes and old myths about Americans that don’t necessarily hold up to who we’ve become. I can’t speak for the whole country—there’s a lot of us—but I’m really proud by the amount of curiosity that’s developed in the last 10 years in the wake of really hard events. For the first time in my life, I am conscious of how people are interested in what’s happening outside of our borders. We need to cultivate that, especially in students. We can feel isolated and safe in our own bubbles, but what’s going on in whole world will invariably reach your front door at some point.
Looking back at my life, I think I’ve always been someone who is attracted to things that are different, whether friends or food or whatever. Anything. I wanted something that I wasn’t experienced in at home. I love communicating that experience and sharing things—I think that’s a pretty natural state of being. This idea of close-mindedness and xenophobia is unnatural. That’s not who we’re meant to be as people. And Americans are waking up to that. That’s been my experience. We have more opportunity and possibility these days—whether physically or virtually. There is nothing really holding us back.
Here at MA, you have wonderful programs where the community can actually go other places. That’s great. I think the more of that, the better. And the better off humanity is.
5. What made biggest impression on you at Marin Academy?
There were so many characters among classmates and faculty. So many experiences that I’ve never had before and probably will never have again. In general, it opened my mind and perception about life and art and history. I called on my experiences at MA so many times in education and later in life and in places I’ve traveled to. Books that we read here inspired me to go see places that I wouldn’t have otherwise. There was something really essential about this place that I understand is still here.
I know how important those teenage years are for people. Iran is very young country—70% of people are under 35. After the revolution in 1979, there was a very big push to procreate. They were in an 8-year war in Iraq where millions were killed. The clergy was pushing people to have lots of kids, but they didn’t think about how that would affect resources. It means 70% of society is younger than I am. I’m constantly interacting with young people. I have lots of friends in their 20s, and their younger siblings are teens. I’ve always had a real fondness for young people of this age. They are so able to access and process info, but at same time they are learning things fresh, so their perspective is much newer than mine. If I had to pick a favorite age group of people, it would be teenagers or octogenarians.