Families of Americans Held in Iran Urge Trump: Keep Your Promise
U.S. exit from nuclear deal could jeopardize prospects for imprisoned Americans.
Babak Namazi, whose brother and father have been languishing in an Iranian prison for almost three years, brought a memento to his meeting at the White House this week, a day after President Donald Trump announced the United States would be withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
It was a laminated copy of a promise Trump made via Twitter on the eve of his election 18 months ago not to neglect the plight of Americans imprisoned in Iran.
“This doesn’t happen if I’m president!” the tweet said.
Namazi handed the printed copy of the tweet Wednesday to two senior White House officials, who promised to show it to Trump. He said later it was meant to signal that he and the families of at least five other Americans held by Iran expect Trump to keep his promise, even as long-troubled relations between the two countries deteriorate further.
“I stressed during my meeting at the White House … that the situation of my family obviously has to remain as a separate humanitarian issue and it should be disconnected from all the difficulties that the two countries are facing,” Namazi told reporters.
Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal Tuesday, calling it a “horrible” agreement and announcing renewed oil and other sanctions against Iran. He made no mention of the Americans held there.
The decision meant, among other things, that what little diplomatic contact the two sides maintained would grind to a halt. Under the terms of the Iran nuclear agreement, U.S. officials held quarterly meetings with officials from Iran and other signatories to the accord, and they would use the sessions to raise the plight of the imprisoned Americans.
As the move potentially complicated the fate of detainees in Iran, the Trump administration hailed the release from North Korea of three Americans, who returned to U.S. soil Thursday accompanied by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — paving the way for a high-stakes summit in June.
Namazi’s 46-year-old brother, Siamak, was arrested in October 2015, just after the Iran nuclear deal was clinched. Working as a business consultant outside of Iran, Namazi was arrested during a trip to Tehran to visit relatives.
As the Iran nuclear agreement took effect in January 2016, the two countries exchanged prisoners. But Siamak was not among those released. U.S. officials at the time said Tehran had pledged to free him as well.
His father, a former aid worker and senior diplomat at UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, flew to Tehran to visit his son in prison in February 2016. Iranian officials arrested him as well. He is now 81.
Both men were given 10-year sentences on vague espionage charges that have never been fully explained by the Iranian authorities. A U.N. human rights body ruled last year that the detention and prosecution of the Namazis violated their internationally recognized right to a fair trial, and it demanded their immediate release.
Administration officials told Namazi Wednesday that pulling out of the deal “would be very helpful to sending very clear messages to Iran,” according to his lawyer, Jared Genser, who also attended the meeting.
Genser said the only realistic way to win the release of the Namazis and other Americans would be through direct talks between Washington and Tehran on a prisoner swap.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif suggested last July maintaining a separate channel for talks about the detainees and alleged that a number of Iranians were unjustly imprisoned in the United States. Senior U.S. officials reportedly have told the Iranians that Washington would be open to such a dialogue.
Apart from the rupture over the Iran deal, there are other worrying signs for the families of imprisoned Americans. The regime appears to have ramped up the detention of foreigners with dual citizenship over the past two years, particularly Europeans. At least 19 European nationals are now behind bars, according to a Reuters report last year.
Babak Namazi, 50, who practices law in Dubai and travels to Washington regularly for meetings with officials, told reporters his father has a heart condition and is in fragile health. He has been hospitalized at least four times, including for an emergency heart operation last year to install a pacemaker. His family has repeatedly warned that continued incarceration puts his life at risk.
Babak said his father was often away from his family during a long career with UNICEF, participating in dangerous aid missions in Somalia, Egypt, Kenya, and elsewhere. He said that as a boy, he was sometimes frustrated that his father was away on assignment, but he also understood that his dad was trying to make the world a better place.
“He said he would make it up to us one day, when he retired,” Babak says.
A State Department spokesperson, asked if the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal could hamper efforts to free imprisoned Americans, told reporters: “The U.S. government raises with Iran at every opportunity the cases of U.S. citizens missing and unjustly detained in Iran. We will continue to do so until their cases are resolved.”
Another State Department official at the briefing said that securing the release of Americans detained in Iran was a “high priority” but that it was “too sensitive” to discuss in any detail. “These are life and death things,” the official said.
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce