Iran Nuclear Deal: Americans Imprisoned by Tehran Must Be Freed


President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken listen during a virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the White House in Washington, D.C., March 1, 2021. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The administration must focus on freeing the Americans unjustly imprisoned in Iran, before a single sanction is lifted.

Last Friday a spokesman for the State Department made moving remarks about Siamak Namazi, an American held prisoner in Iran:

This weekend marks 2,000 days since Iran arrested Siamak Namazi for being a U.S. citizen. Siamak Namazi was a businessman living in Tehran when he was arrested in October of 2015. When his father, 84-year-old Baquer Namazi, traveled to Iran to help free his son, the Iranian Government arrested him too.

Both Siamak and Baquer . . . were sentenced to 10 years in prison on baseless charges. As a result, the Namazi family has suffered for five and a half years while the Iranian Government continues to treat their husband, father, son, and brother as political pawns. This terrible milestone should offend all who believe in the rule of law.

Nicely said, but there is every indication that the Biden administration is planning to do exactly what the Obama administration did just over five years ago: Make a deal with Iran that abandons Americans held hostage there.

That is in fact exactly what happened when President Obama and then–Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. Consider the incredible sequence of events: July 14, 2015, was “Finalization Day,” when the Iran deal was concluded and announced. October 19, 2015, was “Adoption Day,” when all parties to the deal considered themselves to have adopted its terms. In July 2015, Siamak Namazi was blocked from leaving Tehran after a visit. On October 13, 2015, he was formally arrested and on October 18, he was sentenced to ten years in prison — one day before “Adoption Day.” A clearer Iranian gesture of scorn for the United States is hard to imagine.

When I met with Siamak’s brother, Babak Namazi, in Abu Dhabi last year, he told me that John Kerry had promised him that his brother would be released as part of the Iran deal. That pledge was evidently false, as Siamak has just completed his 2,000th day in prison. Worse yet for the family, the Iranian despots won’t allow their father, Baquer Namazi, to return home either. He’s now placed under house arrest, despite being 84 years old.

We all know what this says about Iran — the manufactured prison sentences, the kangaroo courts, the cruelty. But also note their contempt for the United States, signaled by their sentencing of Siamak Namazi to ten years just one day before “adoption” of the JCPOA in 2015. They guessed correctly that American talk about doing all we can to get our hostages returned did not include delaying the lifting of U.S. sanctions by one single day.

The question is whether another American administration is about to do it again, and tragically the answer appears to be yes. Negotiations between Iran and the United States begin this week in Vienna, indirectly at first. Instead of fine words from the State Department spokesman — “political pawns,” “offend all who believe in the rule of law,” “baseless charge” — what the Namazis need is a commitment to get them out before we agree to anything with Iran. The spokesman called this meeting in Vienna “a healthy step forward,” and Rob Malley, special representative for Iran, called it “a first step . . . on the right path.” A better and healthier first step would be a commitment to freedom for these unjustly imprisoned Americans. The “right path” would lead them home.

As the special representative for Iran at the end of the Trump administration, I can say that we labored as hard as we could to gain their release. I am sure officials in the Biden administration feel much as we did, especially if they have ever met members of the Namazi family or of the other American hostages in Iran, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi. But administration officials are negotiating now to give the Iranian regime something it badly wants: sanctions relief. To lift the key financial and petroleum sanctions without gaining the release of the American hostages in Iran is in effect to abandon them — again.

Consider these comments from Malley in an April 2 interview with PBS Newshour:

Robert Malley: And I do want to say before I leave just a thought that we have American detainees unjustly detained in Iran. We can’t forget them. And anything that happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail, our goal is going to be to get them back home.

One of them, Siamak Namazi, is going to be marking 2,000 days unjustly detained in an Iranian prison tomorrow. So, we will work as hard as we can on the nuclear deal. We will get it as soon as it’s possible. But we’re never going to forget the Americans who are wrongfully detained and need to be reunited with their loved ones.

Judy Woodruff: Can there be a deal if they are not returned?

Robert Malley: We’re going to get them home, and we will do everything we can. That’s a priority for the president. It’s a priority for the secretary of state. And it’s a priority for my entire team.

This is not reassuring, and indeed seems to signal to Iran that the release of Namazi and other American hostages is completely unrelated to the nuclear negotiations now beginning — just as it was five years ago in the Obama administration.

Now is the moment for members of Congress, and especially Democrats, to tell the Biden administration that it cannot in good conscience abandon Siamak Namazi. His release is long overdue: Get him and his father, and all the American hostages, out — before one single sanction is lifted.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.



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