Iran's ruling mullahs who control its Islamic judiciary have imposed an unspecified prison sentence on Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist accused of spying, a government official said Sunday.
The latest vague announcement – last month it was announced Mr. Rezaian had been convicted after a secret trial without specifying on which charges – may signal the endgame is under way between the United States and Iran, long bitter adversaries who, earlier this year, hammed out a landmark nuclear-limitation pact.
Mr. Rezaian, who holds both Iranian and U.S. citizenships, was arrested in July, 2014, and although both the Obama administration and the Iranian theocracy insist his case isn't linked to improving relations between the two, he has been widely regarded as an innocent pawn in a convoluted test of diplomatic gamesmanship.
"Serving a jail term is in Jason Rezaian's sentence but I cannot give details," Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the Iranian judiciary spokesman, said on Sunday.
Mr. Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent since 2012 and one of only a very few resident Western journalists in Iran, faced a slew of charges including "collaborating with hostile governments" and disseminating propaganda. Iranian state-controlled TV routinely refers to Mr. Rezaian as an "American spy." His wife, Yeganeh Salehi, and two other journalists were all initially arrested together on July 22, 2014. Aside from Mr. Rezaian the others were released.
After reports of his sentencing, Washington Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl issued a statement saying: "We're aware of the reports in the Iranian media, but have no further information at this time.
"Every day that Jason is in prison is an injustice. He has done nothing wrong," Mr. Jehl added. "Even after keeping Jason in prison 488 days so far, Iran has produced no evidence of wrongdoing. His trial and sentence are a sham, and he should be released immediately."
Last month, after a similarly vague announcement that a secret Revolutionary Court had reached a verdict of guilty, Mr. Jehl said: "It's a matter that's being decided in the political spheres in Iran."
A prisoner swap may be in the offing.
At least 19 Iranian citizens are imprisoned in the United States.
In addition to Mr. Rezaian, 39, at least two other U.S. citizens are known to be imprisoned in Iran: Saeed Abedini, a Christian missionary; and Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine accused of spying.
In September, while in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said he didn't "want to talk about the word 'exchange'" but he added that mutual releases might be in the best interests of both countries. "It is important to me to find a way, if there is a way, to set them free."
Mr. Rouhani was the driving force behind Iran's acceptance of the nuclear pact agreed with the United States and five other major powers earlier this year. That deal, coupled with an uneasy alliance of convenience battling the Sunni extremist Islamic State group, has changed relations between Iran and the nation it dubbed "the Great Satan" for decades.
Prisoner releases to seal or spur warming relations between adversaries have a long pedigree in international relations even as linkage is always denied.
For instance, Havana released Alan Gross, held for five years on espionage charges, and Washington freed the last three members of the so-called Cuban Five in December as Barack Obama moved to restore relations with Cuba after more than 50 years.
In a statement, Sherif Mansour, Middle East program director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, called for Mr. Rezaian's immediate release. "By withholding information about the verdict and sentence, the Iranian government shows that its pursuit of Jason Rezaian on bogus espionage charges is nothing but a facade to prolong his unjust imprisonment," he said.