On Monday, after eight years inside Iran’s Evin Prison, notorious for its brutal conditions, Siamak Namazi stepped through the door of a Qatar Airways plane that had just flown him to freedom and paused. From the top of the steps, he looked around, cracked a smile, then waved—at no one in particular. Minutes later, he issued a statement from Doha, before his transfer for the final leg of his journey to Washington to reunite with his family. His “ineffable joy,” he said, was laced with “a painful and deep feeling of guilt” because so many still languished behind Evin’s hostile walls. “All the political prisoners of Iran,” he said, “deserve their liberty.”
According to Belgian government officials, Iran currently holds at least twenty-two Europeans, including a European Union diplomat. The release of Namazi and four other Americans, as part of a prisoner swap that culminated two years of plodding diplomacy, will almost certainly not bring an end to an Iranian tactic that has spanned more than four decades and imprisoned almost a hundred U.S. citizens. “Hostage-taking keeps the zealots in power, even at the cost of Iran’s remaining an international pariah/polecat whose passport is worthless, whose currency is worthless,” John Limbert, one of the fifty-two Americans held for four hundred and forty-four days after Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, told me. Detaining foreigners is also an essential ploy in the gamesmanship among rival factions inside Iran. Limbert added, “As long as the ultra-MIGA (Make Iran Great Again) faction there needs to show that it’s in charge, it will continue to take actions—like hostage-taking—to discredit its political rivals, no matter the associated costs.” One of Limbert’s captors told him in 1979, “This isn’t about you; this isn’t about the Shah; this isn’t about the U.S. It’s about us. We have our internal fish to fry.”
Namazi, a former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, was the longest held of the five Americans released on Monday. He was detained, in 2015, while visiting his parents in Tehran and was charged with coöperating with an enemy state. To pressure Washington, Iranian intelligence then arrested several more Americans, including Namazi’s father, Baquer, a former UNICEF official.
Since 2018, Iranian officials have refused to talk with their American counterparts, after the Trump Administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. The Trump White House also imposed more than fifteen hundred new sanctions on Iran to squeeze its economy. Last October, Iran allowed Baquer Namazi to leave the country for urgent medical care. Diplomatic momentum picked up in the spring, and played out over a reported nine rounds of awkward diplomacy conducted through third parties, mainly Qatar and Oman. In tiny Doha, Qatari officials shuttled between the American and Iranian delegations staying at different hotels.
Two of the other Americans released by Iran on Monday were identified as Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who tracked rare Asiatic cheetahs and was sentenced, in 2019, to ten years for spying, and Emad Shargi, a businessman with a capital-investment fund who was sentenced in 2020 to ten years for espionage; two others released in the deal declined to be identified.
The terms of the deal sparked criticism even before it took place on Monday morning. In exchange for the five Americans, the United States released five Iranians—four held on charges related to sanctions-busting matériel that could be used for military purposes and one for allegedly failing to register as a foreign agent for the Islamic Republic. Only two wanted to return to Iran. Two preferred to remain in the United States, the Iranian Foreign Ministry acknowledged on Monday. Another will join relatives in a third country.
The most contested element of the deal is the Biden Administration’s agreement to issue a waiver so that South Korea could transfer six billion dollars in frozen assets that it owes Iran for past oil purchases. The terms stipulated that the funds be deposited in a restricted account permanently controlled by Qatar, which will oversee and pay out for Iran’s designated purchases for humanitarian goods, such as food, medical, educational, and agricultural goods. (For years, Iran imported hundreds of thousands of dollars in bull semen from the United States to breed cows.) No money will ever go into Iran, a senior U.S. official told reporters on Sunday. “This channel is designed explicitly, again, to guard against money laundering, misuse of Asian and U.S. sanctions,” he said. “If Iran tries to divert the funds or use them for anything other than a limited humanitarian purpose as authorized, we’ll take action to lock up the funds.” The U.S. Treasury will also have oversight on all of Iran’s designated purchases. It expects that the funds will be used over years, not all immediately.
Both Republican and Democratic Presidents have engaged in prisoner or hostage swaps in the past, but Republicans have condemned the terms of the agreement with Iran. Senator Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, called the six billion dollars a “ransom” payment. Others charge that Iran will be able to free up the six billion dollars it would need for humanitarian purchases and use it for military or other nefarious ends. “Iran’s leaders will take the money and run,” Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, wrote on social media last week. “What on earth did Joe Biden think would happen?” On Monday, he added, “Two of the five Iranians released as part of this terrible deal will stay in the U.S. Joe Biden’s embarrassing appeasement not only makes Iran stronger, it makes America less safe.” On Facebook, Senator John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said he supported efforts to bring home Americans detained abroad, “but Iran will now count pallets of ransom money, putting its leaders in a better position to develop a nuclear weapon and fund terrorists. And the price to release U.S. hostages will only go up.”
On Monday, the White House announced a new round of sanctions on the former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as Iran’s ministry of intelligence, for their past involvement in the wrongful detention of Americans. The Biden Administration hopes the swap will enable other diplomatic openings with Iran, notably on Iran’s increasingly advanced nuclear program. According to Kelsey Davenport, the director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, Tehran now has enriched uranium to more than sixty per cent and—if it made the political decision to build a bomb—could fuel up to three nuclear weapons. Officials in Washington have also long wanted to deal with Iran on regional issues, such as Iran’s proxy attacks on Americans in the Middle East and the war in Yemen between rival factions supported by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States had less room to maneuver on these issues while Americans were imprisoned in Iran. So the swap is a first step. But a very tiny step. ♦