The fate of two Americans detained in Iran's notorious Evin Prison could hinge on the final days of the Obama administration.
- By Kim GhattasKim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. She is the author of The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power. Follow her on Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas.
There’s one last deal for President Barack Obama to strike before he leaves office. It’s a race against the clock to retrieve American citizens languishing in Iranian prisons, including a father and son, both of whom suffer from deteriorating health conditions.
With a looming deadline of Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, White House officials have been trying to secure the release of Siamak Namazi and his aging father, Baquer, two dual Iranian-American citizens detained for more than a year and sentenced last October to 10 years in prison for collaborating with a foreign government. Relatives and human rights lawyers, concerned that a new administration could lead to further delays, have been pressing the issue.
But hopes are dwindling fast that the release will happen before the end of Obama’s term. One reason for that is Obama’s own handling of the release of five detainees from Iran in January 2016, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Obama timed the release of $400 million owed to Iran since the late 1970s with the prisoner exchange, leading to accusations that he had in effect paid ransom money for the release of the hostages. As a result, he seems to have become reluctant to feed that impression with any further prisoner exchanges.
Iran received a total of $1.7 billion over the course of three weeks. The money was owed to the Iranian government after a deal signed and paid for by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was put on hold in the wake of the 1979 revolution. After the January prisoner release, concurrently with the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, the United States transferred the cash to Tehran in pallets on an Iranian cargo plane.
The conclusion the Iranians seem to have drawn from that episode is that they could indeed receive money in exchange for prisoners — and they have since detained several more Americans and dual nationals. After the Namazis were sentenced in October, the semiofficial Mashregh News wrote: “Now we must wait and see how many billions of dollars the Americans will offer for their release.”
But days before his departure from the White House, could the president suddenly shrug his shoulders and secure a release by offering some sort of concession — whether cash, a prisoner exchange, or some other shift in policy — regardless of the impression he creates as he exits? The impact of either of the Namazis dying in prison would be devastating for whatever’s left of the thaw between Iran and the United States — and there’s reason to worry about both father and son.
Siamak, a 44-year-old business consultant and graduate of Tufts University, was arrested in Tehran in September 2015. He long worked as an advocate of closer ties between the United States and Iran and was well-connected in both Washington and Tehran. Until the final minutes before the prisoner release last January, his relatives and friends believed he was part of the group of Americans who would be freed. They were blindsided and angered to discover he was left behind.
There was no convincing explanation for why Namazi was excluded, but one explanation is that, as a more recent detainee, any insistence on adding him to ongoing negotiations for a group of prisoners who had already been in detention for some time could jeopardize everyone’s release. It was no consolation for the Namazi family and possibly a waste of leverage by an administration too eager to implement the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Siamak’s 80-year-old father, Baquer, was then detained in February 2016. The elder Namazi, who has a heart condition, worked for UNICEF for years, mostly in Africa. A governor under the shah, he then immigrated to the United States in 1983 before moving around the world for his job. They both ended up in the notorious and feared Evin prison, where prisoners are known to be tortured, face mock executions, and have even died in detention.
Siamak’s mother, Effie, wrote in a Facebook post at the time: “This is a nightmare I can’t describe.”
The Namazis are not alone: Several other Americans, dual citizens, and green card holders have either been detained or disappeared in Iran. Former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing in 2007 during what appears to have been a rogue CIA mission on the island of Kish. His family received proof of life in 2011. Several cases are undisclosed because the families have chosen not to publicize them out of fear of undermining their efforts to free them.
But the Namazis’ case has garnered the most attention, because of their high profile. This could potentially help garner more attention to their situation, creating pressure on the Iranians and leverage for the negotiators. UNICEF has been calling for the release of its former official, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon even reached out to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to raise the case of the elder Namazi.
But while news of the Namazis’ detention was public, Siamak’s immediate family initially chose not to speak out about it, fearing that Effie Namazi could lose visitation rights to her son and husband. Siamak’s brother, Babak, who lives in Dubai, feared he could be detained next and stopped going to Tehran. But since late last year, the Namazi family has started speaking out: Babak recently gave interviews to CNN and the BBC publicly appealing for the release of Siamak and Baquer, due to fears that their time is running out.
Baquer has a heart condition, and his 10-year prison term is akin to a death sentence. Siamak’s physical and mental state is said to be weak because of months of solitary confinement. He is still being interrogated despite having been sentenced and has been deprived of some of the basic necessities provided to prisoners, such as blankets or even a mattress, according to people close to the family.
But the Namazi family, their relatives, and even friends have stuck closely to a humanitarian appeal, avoiding the politics surrounding the case. Openly blaming Iranian authorities risks alienating officials able to help and jeopardizes the family’s access to the detainees. Any criticism of the U.S. administration for failing to secure the release of the Namazis would help shift the blame away from Iran.
So the key now, according to a number of people close the family, most of whom preferred to speak anonymously, is how to create incentives for the Iranians to release the detainees.
First, they say, it requires accurately defining the situation. One word still haunts the relationship between Iran and the United States: hostage. It’s a word Obama administration officials will not use in their discussions of the dual citizens held in Iran — but that is precisely how people close to the family and relatives of other Americans detained in Iran feel about the detentions.
“I believe the Namazis are absolutely hostages. No evidence has been presented against them, and the Iranian regime has made it clear that they expect a quid pro quo in exchange for their release,” said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Iranian politics is typically seen as a contest between reformists — such as President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif — who are keen to improve ties with the West, and hard-liners led by the supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who thrive off their opposition to the West. The IRGC, long hostile to any figures trying to build ties with the United States, is seen as the force that spearheaded the arrest and prosecution of the Namazis.
“In contrast to nations like China and India, which see their diaspora communities as enormous assets, the Revolutionary Guards view Iranian-Americans as assets to be bartered,” said Sadjadpour.
While there’s no doubt that the hard-liners are driving the arrests and that they have the power to curtail Rouhani’s room for maneuver, Sadjadpour warns against letting reformists off the hook too easily. Doing so risks absolving them of any responsibility “for the terrible things Iran does both at home and abroad, whether that’s hostage taking or being accomplice to mass killing in Syria,” he said. “As long as Zarif and Rouhani can shirk accountability for these things, they have little incentive to try and rectify them.”
The United States had hoped that after striking a nuclear deal with Tehran, the Iranians would be more open to discussing a variety of other issues, including Syria. But they have shown little interest in doing so — and even less since the January exchange. In essence, they took the sanctions relief, the cash, and walked away. While Iran is abiding by its side of the nuclear agreement, that sacrifice has come with only nominal pain.
Incentives to release the American detainees don’t have to take the form of cash, policy concessions, or other positive inducements, according to human rights lawyers working on some of these cases. They suggest trying to gain leverage in negotiations by first taking away things that the Iranians value, such as visas for diplomats serving at the United Nations or for Iranians studying or working in the United States who are relatives of Iranian officials. U.S. officials could also block business deals, such as Iran’s recent $17 billion purchase of Boeing commercial airliners, or delay other transactions that are sitting at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which licenses any business deals with Iran.
All of this requires intricate diplomacy — something the incoming Trump administration may not be inclined to indulge in. During the campaign, Trump promised that his first priority would be to “dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.”
But a sticks-only approach to Iran may also aggravate negotiations, pushing the hard-liners to dig in their heels. Trump’s team has already been in touch with lawyers working on behalf of the family, but there is still a fear that it will take too long for the incoming administration to get up to speed with the details of the case and devise a strategy — or even prioritize this case. There are also concerns that with Iran getting ready for presidential elections in May, Tehran will be too busy to negotiate on this issue.
When the Namazis were sentenced in October, before his election, Trump boasted in a tweet that Iran would not dare do this if he were in office.
“Well, Iran has done it again. Taken two of our people and asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn’t happen if I’m president!”
With barely any time left for Obama to get the Namazis released, Sadjadpour hopes Trump will make good on his word: “If Trump wants to show his deal-making ability, this would be a good place to start, to get innocent Americans freed from Iranian dungeons.”
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