Iran nuclear talks seen as best chance to free US detainees

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Advocates seeking the release of four Americans detained in Iran are growing increasingly concerned that failure to reach an agreement on rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal will squander the best chance for them to return home.

Biden administration officials stress that their work to free the Americans is separate from the talks to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal, but the meetings in Vienna nonetheless present a major opportunity to push firmly for their release.

A senior State Department official, speaking with reporters last week after the latest round of talks, said the U.S. has made progress on efforts to release the Americans but cautioned that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”

“It is a priority, and we are absolutely insistent that the four American citizens who are wrongfully detained be released,” the official said.

Those imprisoned include Siamak Namazi, 49, who was arrested in 2015, and his 84-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, who was apprehended in 2016 but has been under house arrest since 2018 because of failing health.

They are serving out 10-year prison sentences on the charge of “collaborating with enemy states.” Advocates for their release say the two men have been held under harsh conditions and treated cruelly, including extended imprisonment in solitary confinement, little access to needed medical care, and physical and psychological torture.

Morad Tahbaz, a businessman and environmental conservationist with the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, was arrested in January 2018 along with five other conservationists on charges of spying for the U.S. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Emad Sharghi, a dual American Iranian businessman, reportedly held since 2018, was publicly convicted by an Iranian court of espionage and also sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Biden administration officials are also pressing Iran for information on the fate of Robert Levinson, a former American intelligence official believed to have died in Iranian custody following his 2007 disappearance in the country.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), an advocate for the Levinson family, whose members reside in his district, told The Hill that the talks in Vienna “have to be viewed as our best opportunity” in releasing detained Americans from Iran and returning Levinson’s remains to his family in South Florida.

“The family deserves so much more than that, but clearly this is something that needs to happen,” he said.

The Florida lawmaker added that he hopes administration officials are leveraging the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act in its talks with Iran.

The law, which passed in December, allows the president to impose sanctions on American hostage-takers and elevates the federal response to free U.S. citizens unjustly detained abroad.

“My hope and expectation is that this administration will use all of the tools that are provided in the Levinson act during their indirect discussions with the Iranians, that the message be sent loud and clear to Iran that we will not tolerate the taking and holding of Americans, and that they must return the Americans, and bring closure to the Levinson matter for Bob’s family,” Deutch said.

There’s precedent for releasing detainees as part of U.S.-Iran nuclear negotiations. The Obama administration secured the release of four other Americans from Iran in a prisoner exchange carried out on implementation day of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the formal name of the nuclear deal — in 2016.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the nuclear talks present an opening for the U.S. and the European participants to the JCPOA, which include the United Kingdom, France and Germany, to secure the release of all their detained citizens.

“It appears that we are following the same pattern this time,” Ghaemi said, referring to the prisoner exchange that took place in 2016.

“It would really be unconscionable to imagine a nuclear deal signed between, especially European and American governments involved, and their hostages in Iran not released,” he said.

Iran is also holding at least 11 other dual-nationals from Europe, the U.K. and Canada.

Former President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, and the Biden team is determined to bring the U.S. back into the deal. A seventh round of negotiations, where the U.S. and Iran are talking through diplomatic mediators, are expected to take place soon in Vienna. But the months-long effort to salvage the deal is under threat over Iran’s expanding nuclear activity and a presidential transition set for August.

Biden officials are hopeful to come to an agreement with Iran on rejoining the JCPOA, but have raised the risk that the talks could fall apart.

U.S. airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces in Syria and Iraq on Sunday, in retaliation for what the Biden administration said were attacks against American forces in the region, demonstrated the fraught relations between Washington and Tehran.

A State Department spokesperson said U.S. special envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who is leading the nuclear talks in Vienna, is working closely with the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs, Roger Carstens, on all issues related to wrongful detainees.

“We are working night and day to bring home all wrongfully detained U.S. citizens, in Iran and around the world, and we are working with our allies, many of which also have citizens currently arbitrarily or wrongfully detained by the Iranian government, to seek their citizens’ release,” the spokesperson said.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow focused on Iran issues with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the Islamic Republic consistently seeks to use hostages as pawns to win the release of Iranians arrested abroad for violating international sanctions.

“While U.S. officials are stressing that the detainee track and negotiations are purportedly separate, it is likely that Iran would seek to use one concession to beget another. Seen in this light, Iran’s hostage taking remains a component of its foreign policy.”

Officials in Tehran have said they are seeking the release of Iranian prisoners in the U.S., and raised the prospect of a prisoner swap amid the nuclear talks in Vienna.

“The idea of a swap of prisoners has always been on the agenda,” Iranian Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei reportedly said in April, adding that the number of Iranians detained in the U.S. “is bigger than that of American prisoners in Iran.”

The Voice of America reported in May that at least 13 Iranians are in U.S. detention on proven or alleged federal crimes, raising the possibility of their release as part of any prisoner exchange.

Abigail Goldberg-Zelizer contributed to this report.

Tags American detainees Donald Trump Iran Iran nuclear deal Iran nuclear talks JCPOA Ted Deutch Tehran
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