This week, the Biden administration agreed to swap Afghan drug lord Bashir Noorzai for the freedom of U.S. citizen Mark Frerichs, who the Taliban held in captivity for the last two and a half years. That is a diplomatic victory, and Frerichs’ family and friends must be thrilled to see him finally come home. But for U.S. citizens detained in Iran that feeling 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 Spokesperson Vedant Patel urged at a Sept. 7 press briefing. Indeed, these Iranian-Americans have been robbed of their freedom for years by the Iranian government, which has held them as part of its long-running practice of arresting foreign nationals and using them as bargaining chips. And while Iran’s authorities are squarely responsible for the suffering of these individuals, there is reason to believe that the United States can do more to secure their release.
“We are continuing to approach negotiations to secure the release of four wrongfully detained U.S. citizens with the utmost urgency,” Patel said. It has been alleged, however, that the U.S. government has tied the prisoners’ release to the success of the ongoing negotiations to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Some of the prisoners have made the argument themselves, including Siamak Namazi in a June New York Times op-ed, and it has been reflected in recent media. According to media reports, the draft agreement under negotiation will see the prisoners released immediately after a deal is reached.
The Biden administration, however, maintains that it is pursuing the release of the prisoners and the nuclear deal independently. In any case, the two issues should not be linked, especially as the nuclear negotiations have been repeatedly deadlocked and could collapse altogether, leaving these Americans to languish in Iranian prisons for the foreseeable future. There are currently two viable pathways – prisoner swaps and humanitarian exchanges – that President Biden can pursue to secure the release of the detained U.S. citizens in Iran.
Two options: Prisoner Swap or Following in the U.K.’s Footsteps of Humanitarian Exchange
The Biden administration cannot risk losing opportunities to free the Americans held in Iran. The case of Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer is particularly egregious and tragic. Siamak has been imprisoned since October 2015 and is serving a 10-year sentence on spurious espionage charges. His father was detained in February 2016 after going to Iran to seek his release. While the 85-year-old Baquer’s prison sentence has been commuted, he is barred from leaving the country despite his deteriorating health and urgent need for life-saving surgery. Meanwhile, Siamak is the longest held American prisoner in Iran and has been denied furlough requests, even to visit his ailing father. In a recent heartbreaking letter he penned from prison, Siamak pleaded with Iranian authorities to “Treat me like a human! Let me take care of my old and sick parents for a while.”
As the families of the four detained U.S. 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 us.” But what may be holding President Biden back is a political calculation informed by a January 2016 U.S.-Iran deal that brought home several U.S. citizens, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian. While that agreement saw in exchange the release of seven Iranians primarily held on sanctions violations in the United States, it occurred alongside a separate deal that saw the United States pay back a decades-old debt to Iran in the context of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal. The timing of these two breakthroughs amid a period of diplomatic momentum due to successful implementation of the Iran nuclear deal led to opponents of the Obama administration erroneously deriding it for exchanging “pallets” of cash to Tehran for prisoners.
There is no doubt that Biden’s critics will seek to create a political cost for any deal the administration reaches with Iran, even as these critics have no alternative plan that would bring the Americans home. But the possibility exists for Biden to score a political victory by pursuing viable options to secure the release of these Americans that cannot be construed as giving Tehran cash for prisoners. Of note, the U.S. government has a longstanding policy to not pay money for the freedom of Americans unjustly held abroad.
One option is to pursue a prisoner swap, which the Biden administration has now done with the Taliban and expressed a readiness to do with Russia through potentially exchanging Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout for WNBA superstar Brittney Griner. In August, a Russian court sentenced Griner to nine years in prison on drug charges, but the Biden administration said she is wrongfully detained. If the administration is willing to undertake the Griner trade, it should be ready to exchange Iranian prisoners for the four equally innocent Americans held in Iran. There is precedent for such a prisoner swap with Iran, including as noted with the Obama administration in January 2016, and with the Trump administration in December 2019 and June 2020.
Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson recently expressed readiness for an “immediate deal” on a prisoner swap. This was followed by another Iranian official for the first time giving the names of two Iranians imprisoned in the United States and calling for their release. Both men — Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Kambiz Attar Kashani — have been indicted on sanctions violation charges by the Department of Justice.
Alternatively, the United States could seek the release of the Americans through a model that is grounded in a humanitarian exchange that involves prisoners on one side, and humanitarian goods on the other. Importantly, in April 2020, then-presidential candidate Biden also said that the Iranian people are “hurting desperately” and that “it makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to compound that failure with cruelty by inhibiting access to needed humanitarian assistance.” In October 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian called for a “goodwill” gesture from the U.S. in the form of releasing Iran’s money in South Korea for the purchases of “medicine and other vital goods.”
The potential of offering humanitarian relief for prisoners could achieve two diplomatic victories: bringing its citizens home and making a much-needed humanitarian overture that would benefit ordinary Iranians reeling under sanctions.
A financial channel designed by the previous administration to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran could be helpful in this regard. Known as the “Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement,” the U.S. can allow a third country holding Iranian assets to release them through this financial mechanism, which would restrict their use to food, medicine, and medical supplies that ordinary Iranians desperately need. In other words, Biden could exchange food and medicine for the detained Americans on Iran’s own dime.
Notably, the U.K. government negotiated for the release of two British-Iranian nationals, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, earlier this year and simultaneously repaid a debt to Iran. The sums, however, were made availableonly for humanitarian purchases. While this U.K. model would likely not be viable in the United States given its longstanding policy of not paying for hostages, the experience signals Iran’s openness to compromise that involves limited, indirect access to its own money.
Importantly, any overtures the U.S. makes on this issue does carry the risk reinforcing a perverse incentive for Iran and other countries to take more American prisoners. While this should not prevent humanitarian relief or a prisoner swap, the U.S. should in parallel to such efforts forge a multilateral coalition, composed of European countries, Canada, South Korea, Japan, and others, to make clear to Iranian authorities that there will be costs for continuing to capture foreign nationals to use as political pawns.
The Biden administration owes it to the Americans long imprisoned in Iran to do everything it can to bring them home. This week’s U.N. General Assembly presents an opportunity to engage Iranian officials on this issue. In any case, it should be a key focus of U.S. diplomacy with Tehran in the coming months.
Mani Mostofi is the director of the MIAAN Group.