Babak Namazi, whose brother and father are detained in Iran, is living in fear that his family members could be left behind again as the Biden administration is engaged in a diplomatic effort to salvage the Iran nuclear deal.
Namazi’s deep concerns are not unfounded: While American prisoners have been released from Iran three times in the last six years, each time his family members remained there. The first instance occurred in 2016, when Americans were freed on the day that the Iran nuclear deal went into effect.
“We do not want to repeat 2016, where I was told the reason that the government, the administration, felt confident in leaving Siamak behind was the assurance they had that Siamak would be released within weeks,” Namazi said. “That tried and failed catastrophically, because not only Siamak was not released, but within weeks my dad was taken.”
Siamak Namazi, Babak’s brother, was blocked from leaving Iran after visiting in July 2015 and underwent months of interrogations before being arrested in October 2015. Five years ago, his father, Baquer Namazi, was lured to Iran under the false premise that he would be able to see his son. He was instead immediately taken into custody.
Iran accused both men of working with a hostile government — the US — which the family denies.
The Biden administration is engaged in diplomatic talks in Vienna, Austria, aimed at bringing the US back to the 2015 nuclear deal and Iran back into compliance with it. Earlier this year, Babak Namazi urged the Biden administration not to reenter the deal without his family members being released.
“As the Biden administration develops its new Iran policy, my family expects that President Biden and his administration will not make concessions or deals with Iran that do not include, and indeed require as a precondition, the release of my father and Siamak,” Namazi said. “Their releases should not be a subsequent step. That approach by both the Obama and Trump administrations failed.”
While Namazi remains hopeful — particularly because there appears to be some positive momentum in the Iran deal talks — he would not cite any assurances or promises from the Biden administration that it will not leave his family members behind again. He told CNN that President Joe Biden may have to make bold decisions to secure their release.
“I think the expectation I have from President Biden, as I’ve had from all other presidents, is to be prepared to make difficult decisions, to make courageous decisions,” Namazi said.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he has “no higher priority than bringing arbitrarily detained Americans — American hostages — home to the United States.”
The Biden administration has not said that it is in direct talks with Iran about the American prisoners but has described the talks as indirect and active. A senior State Department official said earlier this month that the prisoner issue is being addressed separately from the talks over the Iran deal. But there are some signals that the two issues are being addressed in parallel while US officials are in Vienna, according to sources familiar with the ongoing discussions.
“We can’t forget them,” said Rob Malley, US special envoy for Iran. “Anything that happens on the nuclear side, whether we succeed or fail, our goal is going to be to get them back home.”
Babak Namazi is visiting Washington this week for meetings on Capitol Hill and with State Department officials who he is in regular contact with. He said his request to meet with top officials on Biden’s National Security Council — who he views as decision makers — had been turned down.
A National Security Council spokesperson said the State Department has the lead on the release of US citizens held hostage or wrongfully detailed, and the NSC is working with the department and the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell, a multi-agency team based at FBI headquarters, on a daily basis to bring home all US citizens held in captivity overseas.
The Namazis have weathered grueling experiences in the last few years. Baquer Namazi, who is now 84, had two heart-related surgeries and had to be rushed to the hospital at least a dozen times while he was in prison. His sentence was commuted last year but he is still not allowed to leave Iran. Siamak Namazi has been tortured both physically and psychologically.
Babak Namazi has poured his life into the release of his family members for almost six years, while trying to juggle his responsibilities as a father and a husband. He says that if his father and brother are left behind in Iran again, it would “ruin him.” They have already missed cherished moments in his life such as the college graduation of his son earlier this month.
“It was a very sad reminder for me of my failure to have my entire family attend this celebration,” Babak Namazi said of his son’s graduation. “This engulfs me entirely. It’s the last thought I have before I go to sleep. I dream about it. And it’s the first thought I have in the morning.”