LONDON — Forty years ago last month, the relationship between the United States and Iran went on lock down.
By April of 1980, it had been five months since Iranian students had overrun the U.S. embassy in Tehran and taken fifty-two U.S. diplomats hostage. President Jimmy Carter, intent on preserving diplomatic channels to communicate with the new Iranian regime — technically a provisional government of Iranian revolutionaries, but in truth controlled by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his band of mad mullahs — had allowed Iran’s embassy in Washington to remain open. But after weeks of fruitless attempts at negotiation, Carter had had enough. The U.S. froze Iranian assets and ended diplomatic relations.
The U.S. State Department summoned Iran’s acting ambassador, Ali Agah, to receive formal notice that it was breaking ties. As Agah waited to see Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Agah and the State Department Iran Desk Director, Henry Precht, were caught in a tense conversation. “You know, Ali, life would be so much more pleasant if you simply let our hostages go — if you could prevail on your government simply to give these people their freedom so that they can get back on track again with their normal lives,” Precht said, “These are innocent people being badly treated in an un-Islamic manner.” They are being well treated,” Agah insisted, “We are taking excellent care of them.” In that moment, Precht, a career diplomat with years of training in the tactful style of the U.S. Foreign Service, could only think of one word. “Bullsh*t,” he told Agah.
Forty years later, not much has changed. The Islamic Republic continues to hold a large number of innocent dual and foreign nationals hostage against its professed Islamic values and its own interests. Among those prisoners are four known American Iranian dual nationals, including my friend, Siamak Namazi, his father Baquer Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, and U.S. Navy veteran Michael R. White. Three known British Iranian dual nationals are also behind held, including charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, former British Council employee Aras Amiri, and engineer Anoosheh Ashoori.
In the two years following the signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, at least 30 Iranians who had dual citizenship in other countries had been arrested by Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guards, according to Reuters. The regime, which refuses to recognize dual nationality and chooses instead to see dual citizens as bargaining chips, may hold even more in secret prisons nationwide.
The economic sanctions Carter slapped on Iran then were just the first of what became many sanctions applied against Iran in the last four decades, including more last month. Now, as Iran’s position steadily weakens as oil prices bottom out and COVID-19 forces a moment of reckoning for the regime, Iran has cried poverty, requesting a $5 billion humanitarian aid loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Never mind that in the past month, the Islamic Republic has seemingly had enough money to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, launch its first spy satellite into orbit, and brag in a television interview about its secretive new drone program, all while continuing to support its proxy troops in four conflicts across the region. And never mind that the country’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly has nearly $100 billion under his control through four secretive “foundations,” but chooses instead to let ordinary Iranians scrounge for food, blaming their misfortune on U.S. sanctions.
It’s not just Iran’s hostage-taking that is a criminal enterprise — the country’s entire regime is built on a foundation of that same word that Henry Precht so memorably ascribed to the Islamic Republic 40 years ago. If Iran wants to save its economy and regain its place in the world, it should start by finally listening to Precht’s message.
After all, what other word is there than bullsh*t when Iran has held my friend Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman and humanitarian, since October 2015 on false charges of spying for the United States?
Siamak is “a deeply thoughtful and honest man who is committed to improving the lives of the Iranian people,” I wrote in 2017. Yet, Siamak languishes in brutal Evin prison, most known for being “where political prisoners often go to die.” Meanwhile, his elderly father, Baquer — who was detained when he came to Iran to visit his son — remains under house arrest after being moved for several heart procedures.
Morad Tahbaz, the third American held, was arrested in January of 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the “crime” of saving endangered cheetahs in the Iranian wilderness. The fourth American, U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, was recently granted a temporary medical furlough from captivity under the care of Swiss diplomats in Tehran. A fifth American, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared from an island off Iran 13 years ago and was the longest-held hostage in U.S. history, is believed to have died under mysterious circumstances.
Among the British Iranian prisoners, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released in March to live in her parents’ Tehran home, but made to wear an electronic tag. Her family fears she may soon be returned to prison, as happened to fellow Brit Aras Amiri, who was ordered to return to jail the weekend after being furloughed on April 9th. Meanwhile, 65 year-old Anoosheh Ashoori — who was falsely accused of spying on Iran for Israel, attempted suicide, and then carried out a 17-day hunger strike — remains imprisoned in Evin prison, where the coronavirus puts him at great risk.
Iran has become the Middle East’s hotspot for the spread of the virus. At the end of March, Iran had recorded more than 47,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths, with the numbers steadily rising The crisis has prompted the United Nations to raise concerns that the “overcrowding and the prevalence of diseases in Iran’s jails” could dramatically escalate the pandemic, and the Iranian government sought to get ahead of the problem by releasing 85,000 Iranians from prison — mostly for low-level crimes — in the middle of March. But not all have been so lucky: a 19 -year-old Instagram celebrity named Fatemeh Khishvand, who was arrested last October in a nationwide crackdown on social media stars, contracted COVID-19 while in state custody. She is currently fighting for her life on a ventilator at Sina Hospital in Tehran after a judge refused to release her.
There has been no luck for the Namazis, either. In Evin prison, it’s no longer enough for the Iranian regime that Samak Namazi faces torture and interrogation. He is trapped in “a petri dish of horrific conditions,” says Siamak’s brother Babak Namazi. “Imagine a room which is very, very small with 15, 20, 25 people crowded in there, not having access to basic products for disinfectants, not having medicine, not being tested,” Babak told NPR. “I heard, to my horror, that someone in Siamak’s own cell is displaying [coronavirus] symptoms.”
The irony is that what Siamak did for Iran as a businessman — which was helping Westerners establish businesses on Persian soil that provide jobs and incomes for Iranian citizens — could have put Iran in a much stronger position today. Instead, Iran continues to hold Americans hostage in appalling conditions, all while it stands to gain absolutely nothing and its economy continues to struggle.
As the IMF deliberates whether to approve Iran’s request for emergency funding, the Trump Administration has come out strongly against it, vowing to stop any such funding in its tracks. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that more than 1 billion euros appropriated for Tehran’s fight against COVID-19 has gone missing, while protective equipment donated to help Iran’s medical professionals treat coronavirus patients ended up on the black market instead. Even Iran’s chief auditor, Abdel Azar, acknowledges the graft at the center of the country’s heart: last month, he published a report charging that $4.8 billion had “disappeared” from the country’s budget.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the U.S. Senate have appealed to President Donald Trump to temporarily waive some economic sanctions on Iran for humanitarian reasons while supporting the IMF bailout.
The only condition under which the U.S. should support the IMF funding is if Iran agrees to completely, immediately, and unconditionally release all dual and foreign national citizens that are rotting in its prisons on trumped-up charges, starting with Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer. Only when each and every one of them are safely back home should the IMF release the requested funds.
As American Iranian journalist Jason Rezaian, who spent 544 days himself on invented charges in an Iranian prison before being released in a prisoner swap, recently wrote, “Iran has never faced such a dilemma over its hostage-taking. The international condemnation should any of the hostages die in custody would be severe and would, at the same time, render them worthless as political bargaining chips,” adding, “It has taken a pandemic to show Tehran that these innocent and vulnerable individuals are more of a liability than an asset. Desperate times can be clarifying.”
When Henry Precht called Iran’s explanation of its actions “bullsh*t” forty years ago, he spoke with a clarity Iran’s regime could stand to discover today: holding American captives is illegal, against Iran’s supposed values, and gains Iran nothing.
At a time when COVID-19 threatens to harm, even kill, the American and British citizens Iran has detained, it’s time for Iran to come to its senses and heed finally heed Precht’s message. It’s time for the criminal, corrupt, and morally compromised Islamic Republic to finally do something that is worthy of its name. It is time for them to let my friend, Siamak, and his father come home.
What could be a better Mother’s Day present than that?