- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Supporters of two American-Iranian citizens imprisoned in Iran have spent all year trying to bring Washington and Tehran to the negotiating table to secure their release. But with neither side prepared to budge, it seems the inmates’ family is now trying to bring their loved ones home through an unexpected avenue: Lonnie Ali, the widow of one of the best-known American Muslims, boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
The heavyweight champion and devoted Muslim convert died in June this year. Before his death, he was an ardent supporter of humanitarian causes and sometimes — along with his wife — tried to act as an envoy for American diplomacy in the Muslim world.
Now she is carrying on his tradition, trying to press the cause of Siamak Namazi and his 80-year-old father Baquer. Siamak is a business consultant who was thrown into prison in October 2015, and his father, a former UNICEF official, was jailed in February — both on unspecified charges.
In a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali asked that “Islamic mercy” be shown to the Namazis, “who are pure-hearted citizens of our world.” She invoked her husband’s love for Iran and the Iranian people, asking that the two be returned to their family during this sacred month of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
“It would be a blessing for many to honor the memory of Muhammad with mercy toward these two men,” she wrote. “Muhammad was a champion of Islam for all Muslims. For the world to know his voice and influence still matter would show that Islam is truly a religion of peace and mercy.”
Though he was a follower of Sunni Islam, Ali’s legacy is greatly respected in Shiite Iran. After his death, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted, “May the Almighty receive Muhammad Ali – The Greatest in the ring and in the fight for justice, dignity and peace – in His infinite mercy.”
Before his death, the Alis were involved in efforts to press for the release of two American hikers, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, who were imprisoned in Iran in 2009. Despite battling Parkinson’s disease, Ali traveled to a press conference in Washington D.C. in 2011 to advocate for their return. Josh’s brother, Alex Fattal, credited Ali’s participation as critical to creating the public conditions for diplomacy.
“Of the many public jabs we sent the Iranian government, Ali’s was the most potent,” he wrote in The Atlantic in June. “Ali’s press conference was a turning point.”
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent who was detained in Iran for almost two years on charges of spying, also called Ali’s support for his innocence a “turning point” that convinced his guards to treat him with more respect.
“Ali is revered in Iran,” he wrote in the Washington Post, in a tribute to Ali. “The people love him as a champion of sports, but also charity, and authorities have a deep attachment to him as representing their stated ideology of upholding Islamic values and lifting up the oppressed.”
Still, it’s not clear what impact Lonnie Ali’s support will have at a tense time for American-Iranian relations. Looking to the Obama administration for a big gesture is likely a lost cause at this point, after they received heat and pushback for trading seven Iranian prisoners for four Iranian Americans (including Rezaian) in January, just as the United States lifted sanctions under an international accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Cutting a new deal, like another prisoner swap or easing sanctions further with Iran, looks unlikely before upcoming elections or the end of Obama’s term.
While many hoped the Iran deal would lead to a new era of warmer relations between the two countries, it has also provoked a backlash in Iran’s domestic politics, resulting in an unfriendly climate for dual nationals. For hardliners in the country’s Revolutionary Guards who opposed the Iran nuclear deal and fear opening up to the West will jeopardize their political control and business interests, arresting the Namazis may have been a way to send a signal to both their rivals inside the regime and to the Americans that they could not be sidelined.
Still, friends and supporters are hopeful that Ali’s letter can tip the balance in a country where Muhammad Ali’s legacy is still popular. “Both Baquer and Siamak have now appeared in front of the Revolutionary Court and we are waiting for the verdicts,” said Bijan Khajehpour, a Vienna-based relative of the family, who himself was once imprisoned in Iran.
“As both are completely innocent, we are hoping that justice will be served and that both will be released soon.”
Photo credit:Free Siamak and Baquer Namazi Facebook