On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East will hear from family members of individuals unjustly detained in Iran. This is an important opportunity to highlight and condemn the Iranian government’s unconscionable imprisonment of Americans and other politically motivated detentions that violate Iran’s human rights obligations.

It is also important that Congress spur the Trump administration to reverse course and take concrete steps to secure the freedom of Robert Levinson, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Nizar Zakka, Xiyue Wang and other dual nationals unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the President has made the release of dual nationals in Iran a priority, while his move to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions has torched existing diplomatic channels that could be used to press for the release of Americans – not to mention other interests including human rights and security issues.

The motivation behind the detentions are clear and require a serious approach rather than broad brush or politicized grandstanding. Dual nationals who have been arrested in Iran have been targeted by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence and prosecuted by the Iranian Judiciary that is not legally accountable to Iran’s civil government but rather only to unelected institutions. These hardline elements of the regime oppose Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world, thrive under sanctions and the Iranian people’s isolation, and engage in ruthless tactics aimed at sabotaging rivals who prefer moderation of Iran’s foreign policy and reform of its domestic policies. These elements have benefited extensively from the Trump administration’s abdication from the nuclear agreement, the return of a sanctions economy, and appointment of advisors to the Trump administration who have openly called for war. Hardliners inside Iran prefer to maintain a revolutionary ideology predicated on confrontation with the West and fear the engagement with the U.S. that led to the JCPOA, as well as the potential of sanctions relief that would lift up ordinary Iranians, empower Iran’s private sector and build space for Iranian civil society. Imprisoning Americans is just one more way that these hardline elements seek to enshrine confrontation with the U.S. and guarantee their grip on power will not be undermined through engagement.

While the Trump Administration’s efforts to collapse the deal have undercut the political capital of moderates, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other members of the Iranian administration must continue to hear from the international community that these detentions and human rights violations are unacceptable and that they are responsible for challenging and stopping the perpetrators of these actions within the regime, even if they are not under the administration’s direct control.

The Obama Administration developed a playbook for bringing imprisoned dual nationals home, via consistent diplomacy and back-channel negotiations aimed at securing their release. A combination of public accountability of Iran’s government and credible diplomacy is the formula to achieve results in changing Iran’s behavior. To increase the chances of winning the release of current U.S. persons held in Iran, members of Congress should pursue a multipronged approach based on:

Spotlighting These Cases

  • The cases of American citizens arrested inside Iran on arbitrary charges has been tragic. Businessman Siamak Namazi, long an advocate of improved U.S.-Iran relations, has been imprisoned alongside his father Baquer Namazi, an 81-year old former diplomat for UNICEF whose health is ailing. Xiyue Wang was arrested while conducting research for his PhD dissertation at Princeton University on the Qajar dynasty. 

  • Former FBI agent Bob Levinson’s whereabouts have been unknown since he first went missing in Iran over eleven years ago, which would make him the longest-held U.S. hostage. Meanwhile, U.S. resident Nizar Zakka was arrested after being invited to a conference in Tehran by Iranian officials.

  • Congress cannot allow the plight of U.S. persons to languish in the background. Members of Congress should continue to hold hearings and raise awareness regarding these cases to increase the reputational costs of Iran committing such gross acts of injustice.  

Condemn Iran’s Hardliners–But Don’t Play Into Their Hands

  • The January 2016 prisoner exchange that led to the release of five Americans, including Washington Postjournalist Jason Rezaian, was reflective of moderate and reformist elements of the regime, including President Rouhani, prevailing in internal arguments that cooperation with the U.S. rather than confrontation pays off for Iran.

  • Condemn the elements behind these detentions inside Iran. Hardline factions, which control the Iranian judiciary, have their own reasons for resisting any thaw in the U.S.-Iran relationship and have been largely responsible for incarceration of foreign nationals.

  • Call for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and other officials in Iran’s civil government to hold these elements accountable, while publicly recognizing the split within Iran between these camps. 

Push Administration for a New Approach

  • Well-conceived and tough-minded diplomacy is necessary to lead to progress in the case of imprisoned dual nationals inside Iran. The prisoner exchange under the Obama administration took place after 14-months of secret bilateral talks led by veteran U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk and included negotiations with Iranian intelligence officials.

  • Reaching a similar approach today requires more, not less engagement with Iran. Demand accountability of the Trump Administration on this issue – including what is the Administration’s strategy for securing the release of these prisoners and advancing American interests and what tangible measures the Administration is undertaking to secure the release of these prisoners.

  • Any diplomatic effort to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran would have a far greater chance of succeeding if the U.S. upheld its JCPOA obligations and restored regular diplomatic dialogue. While this is unlikely under the current Administration – and must not be allowed to be construed by Iran as a precondition for the release of Americans unjustly detained – Congress should signal that the U.S. will return to the nuclear deal under a new administration in order to boost U.S. credibility.


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