How Biden can bring Americans detained in Iran home

This week, the Biden administration agreed to trade Afghan drug lord Bashir Noorzai for the freedom of US citizen Mark Frerichs, whom the Taliban has held captive for the past two and a half years. It’s a diplomatic victory, and Frerichs’ family and friends must be thrilled to finally see him home. But for American citizens detained in Iran, that sense of freedom remains elusive. “Iran must allow [U.S. citizens] Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz to return home to their loved ones,” State Department deputy spokesman Vedant Patel urged during a September 7 press briefing. Indeed, these Iranian-Americans have been deprived of their liberty for years by the Iranian government, which has held them as part of its long-standing practice of arresting foreign nationals and using them as bargaining chips. And while the Iranian authorities are entirely responsible for the suffering of these people, there is reason to believe that the United States can do more to secure their release.

“We continue to approach negotiations to secure the release of four wrongfully detained US citizens with the utmost urgency,” Patel said. It has been alleged, however, that the US government linked the release of the prisoners to the success of ongoing negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Some of the prisoners made the argument themselves, including Siamak Namazi during of one New York Times op-ed, and this has been reflected in recent media. According to media reports, the draft agreement being negotiated will see the prisoners released immediately after an agreement is reached.

The Biden administration, however, maintains that it is pursuing the release of prisoners and the nuclear deal independently. In any case, the two issues should not be linked, especially since the nuclear negotiations have been repeatedly at an impasse and could collapse completely, leaving those Americans languishing in Iranian prisons for the foreseeable future. There are currently two viable avenues – prisoner exchanges and humanitarian exchanges – that President Biden can follow to secure the release of US citizens detained in Iran.

Two options: Prisoner Exchange or Follow in the footsteps of the UK Humanitarian exchange

The Biden administration cannot risk losing opportunities to release Americans detained in Iran. The case of Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer is particularly flagrant and tragic. Siamak has been imprisoned since October 2015 and is serving a 10-year sentence on bogus espionage charges. Her father was arrested in February 2016 after traveling to Iran to seek his release. While Baquer, 85,’s prison sentence has been commuted, he is banned from leaving the country despite his deteriorating health and urgent need for life-saving surgery. Meanwhile, Siamak is the longest-serving US prisoner held in Iran and has been denied requests for leave, even to visit his sick father. In a recent heartbreaking letter he wrote from prison, Siamak pleaded with the Iranian authorities for “Treat me like a human! Let me take care of my elderly and sick parents for a while.

As the families of the four detained US citizens wrote in May, “linking the fate of the hostages to the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] could also result in prolonged and unnecessary agony for them and for us. But what may be holding President Biden back is a political calculation informed by a January 2016 U.S.-Iran deal that brought back several U.S. citizens, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. While that deal provided in exchange for the release of seven Iranians primarily detained for US sanctions violations, it occurred alongside a separate deal that saw the US repay a decades-old debt to the Iran as part of Iranian-American claims. Court. The timing of these two breakthroughs amid a period of diplomatic momentum due to the successful implementation of the Iran nuclear deal has led opponents of the Obama administration to falsely ridicule him for trading “pallets” of money in Tehran for prisoners.

There is no doubt that Biden’s critics will seek to create a political cost for any deal the administration makes with Iran, even if those critics have no alternative plan that would bring Americans home. But the opportunity exists for Biden to score a political victory by pursuing viable options to secure the release of those Americans who cannot be construed as giving money to Tehran for the prisoners. It should be noted that the US government has long had a policy of not paying money for the freedom of Americans wrongfully detained overseas.

Prisoner exchange

One option is to pursue a prisoner swap, which the Biden administration has now done with the Taliban and expressed willingness to do with Russia by potentially swapping Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA superstar Brittney. Grind. In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison for drug trafficking, but the Biden administration said she was wrongfully detained. If the administration is willing to undertake the Griner trade, it should be willing to trade Iranian prisoners for the four equally innocent Americans held in Iran. There is precedent for such a prisoner swap with Iran, notably as noted with the Obama administration in January 2016, and with the Trump administration in December 2019 and June 2020.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman recently said he was ready for an “immediate agreement” on a prisoner exchange. This was followed by another Iranian official giving the names of two Iranians imprisoned in the United States for the first time and calling for their release. Both men – Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Kambiz Attar Kashani – have been charged with sanctions violations by the Justice Department.

Humanitarian exchange

Alternatively, the United States could seek the release of Americans through a model based on a humanitarian exchange involving prisoners on one side and humanitarian goods on the other. Importantly, in April 2020, then-presidential candidate Biden also said that the Iranian people were “suffering desperately” and that “it makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to make this worse.” failure with cruelty in preventing access to needed humanitarian aid”. In October 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian called on the United States for a “goodwill” gesture in the form of releasing money from Iran to South Korea for the purchase of “medicines and other vital goods”.

The potential to offer humanitarian aid to prisoners could secure two diplomatic victories: bringing its citizens home and making a much-needed humanitarian overture that would benefit ordinary Iranians reeling from sanctions.

A financial channel designed by the previous administration to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran could help in this regard. Known as the “Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement”, the United States can authorize a third country holding Iranian assets to release them through this financial mechanism, which would limit their use to food, medicine and medical supplies. medical supplies that ordinary Iranians desperately need. In other words, Biden could trade food and medicine for Americans detained at Iran’s expense.

Notably, the British government negotiated the release of two Anglo-Iranian nationals, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, earlier this year and simultaneously repaid a debt to Iran. However, the sums were only made available for humanitarian purchases. While this British model would probably not be viable in the United States given its longstanding policy of non-payment of hostages, experience shows Iran’s openness to compromise which involves limited and indirect access to his own money.

It is important to note that any overture from the United States on this issue carries the risk of reinforcing a perverse incentive for Iran and other countries to take more American prisoners. While this should not preclude humanitarian aid or a prisoner exchange, the United States should parallel these efforts forge a multilateral coalition, made up of European countries, Canada, South Korea, Japan and others, to make the Iranian authorities understand that there will be costs in continuing to capture foreign nationals to use as political pawns.

The Biden administration owes Americans long imprisoned in Iran to do everything to bring them home. This week’s UN General Assembly presents an opportunity to engage Iranian officials on this issue. It should in any case be a major axis of American diplomacy with Tehran in the months to come.

Mani Mostofi is the director of MIAAN Group.

IMAGE: A pair of hands appear behind a set of metal bars. (Photo via Getty Images)

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