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The Obama administration, led by then secretary of state John Kerry, negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015. 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. At exactly the same time, in July 2015, an American citizen named 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.”
This simultaneity was a gesture of Iranian scorn for the United States. 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. Apparently he had been told this by Iranian officials, and perhaps by his usual interlocutor Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. That pledge was false, and Siamak Namazi has just completed his 2,000th day in prison. Worse yet for the family, the Iranian regime won’t allow Siamak and Babak's father, Baquer Namazi, to return home either. Baquer went to Iran to try to secure Siamak's release, and was himself imprisoned with the same ten-year sentence that his son got. Now 84 years old, Baquer has been moved to house arrest--but the regime will not allow him to leave Iran and rejoin his family.
Today negotiations about the JCPOA recommence, and one must ask whether the United States will begin lifting sanctions once again without gaining the freedom of unjustly imprisoned American hostages. Robert Malley has spoken of the administration's commitment to them, as I discuss in National Review today, but without any suggestion that the JCPOA and sanctions have any relationship to the freedom of these American hostages. When asked by Judy Woodruff on PBS "Can there be a deal if they are not returned?" Malley replied "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. "Everything we can" does not seem to include tying their freedom to relief from sanctions.
I use the term "hostage" explicitly in this situation. As the former American hostage Xiyue Wang, a Princeton graduate student imprisoned in 2017 and held for forty months years, has explained, the Iranians knew he was no spy and had nothing to tell them. Here was what Wang told NPR:
They told me quite explicitly just that 'we need a deal with America....They were very straightforward about that. They said, 'We want our money back from the United States. We want our detainees back, and you have to be a spy in order for that to happen.' I was a hostage. They made it very clear. They didn't use the word 'hostage,' but from what they described the situation, I was a hostage. 'It's not important what you've done' — they told me, 'We know what you have done — but it is important that you are a spy, so we can make a deal with United States.'
U.S. sanctions on Iran should not be lifted until an agreement is in place to gain the freedom of American hostages. It needn't happen the same day, and it needn't be a public agreement. But to lift all the JCPOA-related sanctions without securing the release of unjustly imprisoned Americans would be to abandon these fellow citizens-- again.