LONDON—Today in Iran, a good man, an American citizen, is languishing in a brutal Tehran prison. And so is his 81-year-old father.
Siamak Namazi is a friend of mine. An Iranian-born American with dual citizenship who loves Iran and considers it one of his two homes, Siamak has spent years going back and forth to Tehran as a businessman and a humanitarian, helping Westerners establish businesses on Persian soil that provide jobs and incomes for Iranian citizens. He sought me out early on, and I came to know him as a deeply thoughtful and honest man who is committed to improving the lives of the Iranian people while smoothing the relations between our two countries.
In October of 2015, shortly after a widely debunked article ran on a U.S. website questioning whether Siamak was poised to benefit personally if U.S sanctions on Iran were lifted, he was arrested while visiting relatives in Tehran. The government charged him with spying for the U.S. No evidence was presented in support of that charge. Four months later, Siamak’s father, Baquer Namazi, went to Iran to check on his son. Baquer, who served as governor of the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan under the Shah before leaving Iran for America with his family in 1983, where he became a respected diplomat for UNICEF – was also arrested.
In October of 2016, both father and son were sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly “cooperating with the hostile American government.” Naturally, no evidence was offered at trial, nor was there evidence of wrongdoing presented when the Namazis lost an appeal on that sentence this past August. Today, Siamak and his father, a heart patient who recently had a triple bypass – are being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where political prisoners often go to die. Siamak has reportedly been placed in solitary confinement and been “interrogated relentlessly, beaten and tased,” according to his lawyer. Meanwhile, his father’s health is said to be deteriorating by the day.
It’s just this simple: in a world with a lot of bad actors, the Islamic Republic poses the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East and remains one of the most dangerous regimes in the world.
The world – and especially Americans – view Iran primarily through the lens of Iran’s nuclear program and the P5+1 agreement the U.S. and its allies signed to limit that program in 2015. But we should not turn a blind eye to the broader issue here: Iran’s imprisonment of Siamak and at least four other Americans and British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe is just one in a pattern of disturbing behavior by Iran’s regime in the region and despicable despotism at home. While our attention is focused elsewhere, Americans and a Brit are rotting in Iran’s prisons – and that’s not okay.
Iran — much like its ancient ancestor, the Persian empire — has grand aspirations for regional dominance. But today, the Islamic Republic pursues its great power ambitions not by actively conquering territory but by destabilizing other states in the region and supporting proxy groups that threaten Israel and sow chaos. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has long wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East. According to one report, the Revolutionary Guard maintains “a direct, considerable military presence” in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. The Iranian government backs a morally bankrupt Syrian government and has long supported Hezbollah, a militant Shia group based in Lebanon in its attacks on Israel, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have dragged the country into a devastating civil war and assassinated Yemen’s former president just last week.
That’s all before even mentioning the Iranian regime’s repression at home. Iran’s penal code shows no mercy as floggings and executions remain common punishments – including for children. The government restricts freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. What’s more, Iran exports its barbaric practices; Human Rights Watch reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has recruited Afghani children as young as 14 to fight in Syria. And, unlike most of the world, Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship – it simply sees dual citizens like Siamak as Iranian nationals only, increasing the likelihood that such citizens face arrest and torture whenever they return to Iran.
These behaviors are infuriating to me– and they should trouble the Trump administration more, as well. Per usual, Trump has given lip service to the imprisoned Americans, calling Tehran out for falsely imprisoning them. But the White House has yet to do a thing to bring them home. Like so much of the Trump approach to the world, it’s all hat and no cattle, as my friends in Texas like to say.
U.S. leadership in the Middle East depends on recognizing the leadership in the Islamic Republic for what it is – a brutal theocracy whose fondest hope is recreating the Persian empire – and restraining Iran’s capacity to create and exploit instability. How?
I agree with The Economist’s recommendations in September that countering Iran means strengthening unity among Sunni states while restraining some of Saudi Arabia’s reckless and misguided moves – such as seeking to isolate Qatar, intervene in the war in Yemen, and pressured Lebanon Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign – all of which have backfired and opened the door to more Iranian influence. The Trump administration should use its close relationship with the Saudi leadership to restrain the Saudis from taking actions that hurt our shared interest in countering Iran. Writing Saudi Arabia a blank check will only lead to a more unstable region, ripe for Iranian aggression.
We also need to address the key reason why Iran has been so successful in its regional aggression: the internal weakness and instability of its neighbors. As Kenneth Pollack and Bilal Saab argue in The Washington Quarterly, “the best and perhaps only way for the United States to address it is to embrace and enable real reform – political, social, economic.” Stronger, more stable states in the Middle East will be less susceptible to Iranian tactics.
The international community should not as yet abandon the economic investments it has made in Iran since the P5+1 nuclear agreement. The economic crunch Iran faced due to international sanctions was a big reason why it came to the negotiating table, and the prospect of withdrawing western investments and tanking the Iranian economy once again if the regime continues to misbehave is our biggest source of leverage.
At home, Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei should empower President Hassan Rouhani to pursue the reforms he has promised but failed to deliver. The best hope for a more constructive Iran is a leadership that prefers peace, prosperity, and stable relations with other countries. At the very least, Iran must release people like Siamak who have been unjustly detained.
My heart aches to think about Siamak and his father Baquer in this Iranian dungeon. Siamak is far from the Western spy the regime has accused him of being. This is a young man who immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 12 years old. In 1993, he returned to Iran and served in the military. He believes passionately in good relations between the United States and Iran, which is why he’s spent much of his life consulting on doing business in Iran and decrying the effects of sanctions on Iran. Yet now he and his father have become the latest pawns in Tehran’s political scheming.
Siamak’s case is a reminder of the mindset of the Islamic regime – and the danger it poses to its own citizens and to the world. It’s time to stop giving Tehran a free ride, and do everything in our power to bring these Americans home.