WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s envoy to Iran said he didn’t want a repeat of the 2016 prisoner swap agreement that freed a group of Americans without securing the release of a man Iranian-American businessman detained in Tehran.
The Biden administration insists on the release of all Americans unjustly imprisoned in Iran and will not accept a “partial deal” in its negotiations with Tehran on detained citizens, according to US envoy Robert Malley.
“I worked on this issue in the Obama administration when we secured the release of a number of our unjustly detained citizens, but not all,” Malley told a group of former prisoners and families of foreigners currently behind bars in Iran.
A group of five Americans were released from Iran in January 2016, even as US authorities granted clemency to seven Iranians who had been convicted or indicted in US courts. But Iranian-American Siamak Namazi was not part of the exchange and remains in a Tehran prison.
The 2016 prisoner releases came after Iran and world powers struck a deal in 2015 limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing economic sanctions.
Malley said the 2016 episode is understandably “a very sore point” with relatives of Namazi, who is still in jail and whose elderly father, Baquer, was later arrested in 2016 and is still banned. to leave the country.
“This is something that weighs very heavily on me and on us, a number of us who were involved in the deal reached in 2016. And it is a job that we have to do,” said Malley. Tuesday at an online event hosted by Hostage Aid, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families of detainees held overseas and investigating how hostage-taking networks work.
“I know for many of you, if not all of you, how personal and difficult this situation is,” Malley said, adding that the issue was “a priority for the President”.
“We say they all have to go home. We don’t want to make a partial deal. We don’t want to leave anyone behind. Again, I know how painful it was last time and I don’t want to relive history, ”said Malley.
Negotiations between the United States and Iran over a possible prisoner swap are being conducted at the same time as the major powers and Iran are also trying to strike a deal to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Common comprehensive plan of action. Both the prisoners and the nuclear negotiations are conducted indirectly, with European diplomats acting as intermediaries in Vienna.
Former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal and Iran has since exceeded the limits of its uranium enrichment and other nuclear activities. President Biden has offered to bring the United States back to the nuclear deal if Iran returns to complying with its terms.
The State Department said this week that officials expect a seventh round of nuclear negotiations to take place “at the appropriate time.”
At least four Americans are currently imprisoned in Iran: Siamak Namazi, his father Baquer Namazi, arrested in February 2016 and on medical leave since 2018; Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist who was arrested in January 2018; and businessman Emad Sharghi, arrested in December 2020.
Sharghi was convicted of suspected espionage just weeks after the US presidential election in November last year and three days after the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist.
The families of the four Americans could not be reached immediately for comment.
Families of Americans jailed in Iran called on the Biden administration not to make concessions in nuclear negotiations without securing the release of loved ones in custody, and to impose sanctions on Iran if Tehran jails more Americans after a nuclear deal.
Former prisoners and relatives of former prisoners held in Iran and other countries also called on the United States and other governments to take a tougher line on hostage-taking, urging action concerted international effort that could deter regimes from imprisoning foreigners for concessions or ransoms.
Hard-line elements in Iran, who have remained skeptical of diplomatic overtures in Washington, have supported provocative actions in the past, including the imprisonment of foreign nationals, to undermine any rapprochement with the West, analysts say regions, human rights groups and former senior US officials.
“We have made progress. We are not there yet,” Malley said of the prisoner negotiations.
He said, “The Iranians are – I can’t think of any other word but to be extortionate in this regard and try to get as much as they can.
Even if nuclear talks fail to reach an agreement, the United States will continue to seek an agreement on the release of the prisoners, Malley said.
It was “unpleasant” to have to negotiate the release of the Americans, Malley said, because he said they hadn’t committed any crime and should just be released unconditionally.
International human rights groups say Americans, along with a number of Europeans detained in Iran, have been jailed on baseless charges and denied basic civil rights.
Iran rejects this representation and says Washington must release Iranian nationals detained in the United States.
“The release of Iranian citizens unjustly detained in the United States on the basis of false accusations and false allegations has always been a high priority for the Islamic Republic of Iran. But, unfortunately, the United States has taken this issue hostage to the Vienna talks, “Saeed Khatibzadeh, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said in an email to NBC News.
“There has been progress in this regard, but not yet enough. We expect the US government to act more responsibly,” he said.