- 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.
After the White House pushed through last year’s deal with Iran to relax economic sanctions in exchange for limiting Tehran’s nuclear capabilities, many believed a warmer era would open between Iran and the West.
Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American business consultant recently based in Dubai, hoped as much when he visited family and friends in Iran on a personal trip last October.
Instead, he soon found himself in prison, facing an increasingly suspicious environment for dual nationals in the country. On Tuesday, both he and his 80-year-old father, imprisoned in February, were sentenced to 10 years in prison for unspecified charges related to collaborating with hostile governments. The U.S. State Department issued a statement calling for their release.
On Friday before the sentencing, boxing legend Muhammad Ali’s widow, Lonnie Ali, sent a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader asking that “Islamic mercy” be shown to the father and son. Muhammad Ali, America’s best-known covert to Islam, is still greatly respected in Iran as a figure of Muslim peace and charity in the world, and the couple had called for the release of prisoners in Iran in the past.
But his legacy appears to have done little to sway the outcome. Babak Namazi, Baquer’s other son, said each of their sentences had been reached in single court sessions of only a few hours, and that he feared his elderly father will not survive long in prison. He also decried articles in Iranian media “full of fabrications and baseless accusations … depicting my father and brother as saboteurs and infiltrators.”
Earlier this year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned of Western plots to “infiltrate” the Islamic Republic via the nuclear deal. The stiff punishment for the Namazis seems to indicate that Iran’s hardliners, unhappy with steps to open up to Western business, may be cracking down on Iranians with ties to the West to express their displeasure, and perhaps to use as leverage for a new prisoner swap or to extract more economic benefits from the United States.
Other dual-nationals currently detained in Iran include Robin Shahini, an Iranian-American who was visiting his ailing mother and had criticized Iran’s human rights record online, and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian employee of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency. She was visiting family with her toddler daughter when she was arrested and accused of plotting a coup. In September, she was sentenced to five years in prison.
It’s unlikely the Obama administration has room to maneuver a new swap — it spent loads of political capital pushing through the Iran nuclear deal, and now faces sharper pushback from lawmakers. Many have criticized a prisoner swap in January that traded seven Iranian prisoners for four Iranian-Americans (including Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian), just as the United States lifted sanctions. The administration recently acknowledged it had returned $400 million in cash to Iran right after the swap, but said this was part of a separate settlement over an uncompleted arms deal from the 1970s, and was not a ransom payment.
The announcement of the Namazi sentences came a day after an Iranian news agency circulated a montage video that included clips of Siamak Namazi, his passport, and his United Arab Emirates resident identification set to dramatic music.
On Monday, Senator John McCain slammed the Obama administration’s handling of the Iran nuclear deal, and called the video of Siamak Namazi an attempt to intimidate America.
“Such increasingly belligerent behavior towards the United States is hardly surprising, given the Obama administration’s countless concessions to Iran made in pursuit of its dangerous deal,” he said.
Siamak Namazi, a graduate of Tufts and Rutgers universities and former Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow, had worked as a consultant advising foreign firms on how to navigate the Iranian market and had long been optimistic about rebuilding Iranian-American relations.
His father, Baquer, had served as a representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Somalia, Kenya and Egypt.
Photo credit: Free Siamak and Baquer Namazi Facebook