Diplomacy Turned Personal for Brett McGurk and Jason Rezaian

Secret negotiations between the U.S. government and Iran’s intelligence services over the fate of political prisoners led to a lasting friendship.

When Secretary of State John Kerry first asked Brett McGurk to lead secret negotiations with Iran to secure the release of Jason Rezaian, Brett’s initial reaction was that he did not have the time to give the new mission the attention it deserved.

“I was incredibly busy building this huge coalition [to defeat ISIS], developing a military campaign, and developing a diplomatic campaign plan,” said McGurk at a recent talk he and Jason delivered at Stanford about Jason’s new book, Prisoner.

McGurk was recently appointed the Freeman Spogli Institute’s (FSI) Payne Distinguished Lecturer. Prior to his arrival at Stanford, he served as the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS at the U.S. Department of State, a position he held in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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Secretary Kerry was persistent, and Brett agreed to take on the sensitive assignment to secure the release of Jason, his wife Yegi, as well as four other Americans detained in Iran.

Jason, the Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran at the time, spent 544 days in the city’s notorious Evin Prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

Jason and Yegi’s ordeal began in June 2014. “[My wife and I] exited the apartment to go down to the garage. The elevator doors opened, and there was a guy standing there with a gun pointed directly at my face,” said Jason.

What ensued was prolonged captivity at the hands of the Iranian intelligence apparatus. But an unexpected friendship was a surprise result.

The diplomatic process to free Jason and the other American political prisoners began in the fall of 2014. Brett started by reading everything he could find about Jason and getting to know him through his brother Ali and other family members.

“As a diplomat working on these very difficult missions in the world, they’re rarely as personal as this,” said Brett. “This became very personal to me. It’s even more so now that I’ve read Jason’s book about what he was experiencing at the time, which really, honestly, I didn’t know.”

Jason was eventually released in January 2016, shortly after the historic nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, between Iran, the United States, and a number of other global powers, was implemented.

Brett boarded the Swiss plane carrying Jason and the other freed prisoners when it finally touched down in Geneva. “It was quite emotional,” said Brett. “I told Jason, ‘you don’t know who I am but we’re glad you’re home. You’re going to be taken good care of.’ Jason and I have become close friends, partially due to the experience that we both had,” he said.

As someone so directly affected by U.S. policy, Jason feels fortunate to have gotten to know Brett in return.

“It would have been impossible to predict the way our lives have criss-crossed the last couple of years,” said Jason. “Yegi and I ended up being Brett and Gina’s (Brett’s wife) neighbor, more or less, in Washington D.C. Even today, we just arrived in town and ran into Gina in the parking lot of the Stanford Mall.”

The book talk with Jason Rezaian and Brett McGurk was co-sponsored by Stanford’s Iranian Studies Program and the Center for International Security and Cooperation’s Middle East Initiative.