As the United States works to bring Iran back into compliance with the nuclear deal, the family of two Americans in Tehran appeals to the Biden government to make their release part of any deal with the Islamic Republic.
US officials say they had indirect talks with Iran about illegally detained US citizens, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, independently of the Vienna nuclear negotiations.
The White House says their release is a top priority, but Babak Namazi fears that his brother Siamak and father Baquer may be left behind again.
“This fear is ubiquitous, regardless of the assurances you get,” he told Al-Monitor.
Siamak and Baquer Namazi have become symbols of what human rights groups refer to as Iran’s hostage diplomacy. Days after the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) arrested and interrogated Siamak Namazi when he arrived at Tehran airport for a flight home to the United Arab Emirates Visiting relatives. After months of interrogation, the Iranian-American management consultant was officially arrested in October 2015.
Several months after Siamak Namazi was arrested, the IRGC lured Baquer Namazi to Iran on the premise that he could visit his son in prison, his family says. Senior Namazi, a former Iranian provincial governor and UNICEF official, was instead intercepted at the airport and jailed on the same vague allegations of espionage.
In October 2016, both men were sentenced to ten years in prison for cooperating with the US government. Baquer Namazi’s sentence was commuted in February 2020, but the 84-year-old is still prohibited from leaving the country despite serious illnesses.
Siamak Namazi, now the longest-serving American prisoner in Iran, remains in the infamous Evin Prison, where his family claims to have endured long solitary confinement and physical and psychological torture.
“We continue to demand the return of all wrongly detained US citizens – those who are in Iran, of course, and those who are wrongly detained in countries around the world,” State Department spokeswoman Jalina Porter told Al -Monitor last phone briefing.
But the Namazi family fear a repeat of what happened in 2016 when Siamak Namazi was the only American not to return home in what President Barack Obama described as a “one-off gesture to Iran” exchange. The prisoner exchange, which took place on the day the JCPOA came into force, reportedly came after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif personally assured then Foreign Secretary John Kerry that Namazi would be released separately in a few weeks.
“I believe what Iran does, not what it says,” said Jared Genser, the pro bono attorney for the Namazi family in Washington.
“I would hope that this government, which includes many of the same key players in the 2016 agreement, does not make the same mistake twice or reach an agreement based on promises of future action by Iran,” said Genser.
President Donald Trump showed a personal interest in bringing home Americans imprisoned abroad and tweeted during the 2016 presidential campaign that such hostage-taking in Iran “doesn’t happen when I’m president.” But even he failed to win back the Namazis in deals that returned Princeton graduate Xiyue Wang and Navy veteran Michael White.
Such releases of prisoners are welcome developments, said Babak Namazi, but also agonizing “in the sense that we have been left behind again and again? That is a question that we had to ask ourselves three times. “
There are two other known cases of dual US citizens owned by Iran. Environmental activist Morad Tahbaz and businessman Emad Sharghi were each sentenced to prison terms on charges of espionage, which their families say are unfounded.
It is unclear who Tehran is looking for in a prisoner exchange, although the Iranian Foreign Ministry put the figure at around 20 in 2019. A spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for clarification.
As part of the January 2016 prisoner trafficking, the Obama administration granted pardons to seven Iranians convicted or pending for violating US sanctions.
“Every type of exchange Iran offers has an inherent asymmetry,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“If the Islamic Republic proposes the idea of a prisoner exchange, it will always be uneven because in Iran they are exchanging people who are literally hostages with people abroad who have actually committed crimes,” Taleblu said.
In what human rights groups have described as a feature of Iranian foreign policy since the 1979 revolution, foreigners are routinely detained as leverage for sanctions, frozen assets, and other concessions.
According to the New York Center for Human Rights in Iran, at least 15 dual citizens and one foreign national from countries such as Great Britain, France, Austria, Canada and Sweden are currently detained in Iran.
Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the human rights center, said multilateral pressure is needed to prevent Iran from continuing to use foreign nationals as pawns. He urged the United States and like-minded countries to “look beyond the current hostages and see how they can prevent this from happening.”
“Iran would understand the message much more clearly that it will not be tolerated to drag innocent people beyond their interests,” said Ghaemi. “I don’t see any signs of that, and that means this vicious cycle could continue.”
Over the past six years, Babak Namazi has made repeated trips between Washington and his native Dubai and met with officials from what are now three US governments to raise the profile of his father and brother.
Namazi said he and his family are not politicians. They are not interested in the outcome of the nuclear deal negotiations in Vienna, only that any possible deal the Biden government concludes with Iran includes the release of Siamak and Baquer Namazi, he said.
“All of my efforts have not resulted in their freedom, so I can say that I have failed,” said Babak Namazi. “Since I failed, everyone – including the US government that was busy bringing my family home – has failed.”
“We have to find a way to get her home and get her home before it’s too late,” he said.