Report

Relative of American Jailed in Iran Pleads for U.S. Help

Cousin urges Washington to cut a deal with Tehran to secure release of Iranian-American businessman and his elderly father.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016 in New York. / AFP / Bryan R. Smith        (Photo credit should read BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on April 22, 2016 in New York. / AFP / Bryan R. Smith (Photo credit should read BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images)

A relative of an Iranian-American businessman languishing in a Tehran jail appealed Thursday for U.S. assistance to win his release, saying the United States needed to take advantage of its new diplomatic rapport with Iran.

At a moment when tensions seemed to be thawing between the two countries, Siamak Namazi, 45, was arrested last October during a trip to visit his family in Tehran. His 80-year-old father, Baquer, was imprisoned in February. Authorities have yet to announce any charges against them.

Bijan Khajehpour, a former business partner of Namazi and a cousin by marriage, traveled to Washington this week to meet State Department officials and lawmakers and raise the profile of a case that’s been overshadowed by the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program.

A group of five Americans jailed in Iran — including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezian — were freed in January as part of a prisoner swap with Tehran. But much to the disappointment of his family and friends, Namazi was not among them.

Khajehpour himself was imprisoned in 2009 for four months at the notorious Evin prison, the same place Namazi has been held since October, and where political prisoners and dissidents have suffered torture and harsh interrogations for decades.

“I’ve seen Evin myself. I know it’s not a pleasant place,” Khajehpour told reporters. “This issue should not be forgotten. I want to create a sense of urgency on both sides.”

During his visit this week, Khajehpour also met lawmakers asking for their support. The House passed a resolution on Wednesday calling for the unconditional release of the Namazis. The resolution, sponsored by Rep. Ed Royce (R-Ca.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), “urges the president, the allies of the United States, and the United Nations to raise the cases of Siamak and Baquer Namazi with officials of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran at every opportunity.”

A spokesman for the State Department’s Office of Iranian Affairs, Sam Werberg, told Foreign Policy that the United States believes the Namazis are being held “unjustly” and should be released as soon as possible. Secretary of State John Kerry “raises the cases of detained and missing U.S. citizens anytime he meets with Iranian officials,” Werberg said.

Namazi’s mother and other family members have so far declined to discuss the case in any detail, fearing any public remarks could make matters worse for the two men. Khajehpour said he was not speaking on the family’s behalf but wanted to do what he could to help end the imprisonment of Namazi and his father.

He described their detention by Iran as “hostage taking,” and Tehran has in the past used the practice to extract concessions and exert leverage over other governments. Soon after toppling Iran’s monarchy in 1979, foot soldiers of the Islamic Republic seized the U.S. embassy and held 52 Americans for 444 days.

Khajehpour implored the United States to look for ways to cut a deal with Tehran that would end the detention of the Namazis, especially given the dialogue that has blossomed between the two countries’ top diplomats, Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The two men forged a working relationship after spending months hammering out the landmark agreement on Iran’s nuclear program last year.

“Right now at least there is a channel that (they) can talk to each other,” he said. But it is unclear if that channel of communication will endure after Kerry leaves office at the end of President Barack Obama’s term in January, he said. “We don’t know what will happen after the change of administration.“

He said he was concerned about the health of Namazi’s father, Baquer, given his age and heart condition. While Kerry remained in office, he said, time was of the essence.

“I still think all of us have to help them develop creative solutions” to resolve the situation, he said.

The Iranians should understand that their opportunity to secure potential concessions will pass once a new U.S. president takes office next year, he offered. And the Americans could take the initiative rather than waiting for Tehran to make a proposal, he said.

“There must be something (the Americans) can offer, “ he said. There could be another prisoner swap, he suggested, or Washington could remove some firms from a sanctions list or persuade some banks to allow some Iranian transactions. “There are things that are not very costly that we can offer which would probably go a long way” to breaking the impasse, he said.

After his time in jail, Khajehpour resettled with his family in Vienna, where he is a managing partner at Atieh International, a consultant firm advising companies looking to invest in Iran and other countries in the Middle East.

The Iranian regime has taken at aim at dual nationals like Namazi in recent years, especially Iranian-Americans who began to return in the 1990s. Hardliners in the country’s Revolutionary Guards and other elements opposed to opening up to the West fear the diaspora will bring in outside influences that could jeopardize their political control and their lucrative business interests. Their concerns have intensified in the wake of the July nuclear accord between Iran and major powers, in which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear program in return for the lifting of tough economic sanctions.

It is not a coincidence, according to Khajehpour, that Namazi was arrested the same day the Iranian parliament endorsed the landmark nuclear deal in October.

To hardliners skeptical of the nuclear accord, arresting Namazi was a way of sending a signal to both their rivals inside the regime and to the Americans that they could not be sidelined, Khajehpour said.

“They are communicating to both sides,” he said. “They’re saying: ‘Don’t think you got rid of us. We’re still here. We still have power.”

The arrest has also deflated other members of the diaspora, who had hoped that the end of sanctions might open up the country to the outside world and create potential commercial and other opportunities for dual nationals.

Another dual national, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 37, was arrested at Tehran airport in April after visiting her parents in the capital. The Iranian-British national has been separated from her daughter who was one year old at the time of her arrest. Zaghari-Ratcliffe worked for the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters news agency and her husband has called her detention baffling and “absurd.”

Namazi, who earned degrees at Tufts and Rutgers universities, had served as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and spoken out against the effect of sanctions for Iranians trying to obtain medicine.

In 1998, Namazi wrote about how Iranian-Americans could serve as a bridge between the two countries that have been foes since 1979. “The new generation must be made to feel that no matter how much time elapses they will be welcomed and treated with respect in the land of their parents,” he wrote.

Namazi had worked as a consultant advising foreign firms on how to navigate the Iranian market, and most recently was based in Dubai with the Crescent Petroleum Co. Crescent has been embroiled in a legal dispute with the Iranian government, but Khajehpour said his cousin was visiting family and friends when he was picked up and was not representing any foreign company on the trip.

Namazi’s father, Baquer, is a former United Nations Children’s Fund official and a former Iranian provincial governor. His wife, Effie Namazi, reported his arrest in a Facebook post in February.  

“This is a nightmare I can’t describe,” she wrote.

Photo credit: BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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