The Trump administration faces a pivotal decision in coming weeks on how far it is willing to push to secure the release of several Americans imprisoned in Iran.
The White House is mulling options that include punitive measures to pressure Iran over the detained Americans and discussions through an interlocutor for a possible prisoner swap, two sources familiar with the administration’s deliberations told Foreign Policy.
The sources declined to say which foreign government could act as a possible mediator, and whether Iran nationals imprisoned in the United States or other countries could be part of a potential prisoner exchange.
The Trump administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Winning the release of some or all of the Americans held in Iran could help defuse tensions between the two countries, which have escalated since President Donald Trump entered office in January. Trump, who faces a deadline next month on whether to certify to Congress that Iran is in compliance with the nuclear agreement, has threatened to withdraw from the deal or to take a much tougher line.
A key test will come Wednesday evening, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will meet his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, for the first time along with foreign ministers from other major powers that signed the nuclear agreement with Tehran. The meeting will be hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and will include diplomats from Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia.
Wednesday’s discussions will focus on the fate of the 2015 nuclear deal, and it’s unclear if Tillerson will raise the issue of the imprisoned Americans with Zarif. But families of Americans held in Iran are appealing to the administration to enter into talks to resolve the fate of their loved ones.
Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official who oversees the civilian side of the fight against Islamic State, played a vital role in a prisoner swap with Iran in 2016 and would likely be asked to draw on his contacts in Tehran if the administration chose to explore any discussions. The prisoner exchange last year came under sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress, who accused Obama of rewarding Iran for hostage taking.
“It is time for the regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations that they have unjustly detained,” Trump said of Iran in a speech Tuesday before the U.N. General Assembly.
Trump did not mention the most prominent detention case involving Iranian-Americans: Siamak Namazi, 46, a business consultant, has been held for nearly two years and his 81-year-old father, a former UNICEF official, has been behind bars since February 2016.
Trump’s speech must be followed by “urgent action,” said Jared Genser, a lawyer for the Namazis.
“We would urge the Trump administration to sit down as rapidly as possible directly with the Iranian government to discuss the possibility of a prisoner swap,” Genser told FP.
Baquer Namazi has lost 30 pounds while in prison and his health deteriorated further over the past week, the lawyer said. After initially refusing the advice of a cardiologist, the Iranian authorities allowed Namazi to be taken to a hospital to undergo surgery Sunday for the installation of a pacemaker.
Baquer was due to be returned to prison on Wednesday, Genser said.
While the White House has shown little interest in forging a dialogue with Tehran, it could try to negotiate the release of Americans through a country like Oman, which helped broker talks that led to the nuclear accord, said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the meantime, the regime in Tehran was risking triggering a serious crisis if it allowed an elderly Iranian-American to languish indefinitely in prison. “There has been little cost to them. But if Baquer Namazi an 81-year-old U.S. citizen with a weak heart, dies in an Iranian prison, it will be terrible for both Trump and Iran,” he said.
Seeking to avoid antagonizing the regime in Tehran, some families have chosen not to speak out publicly about their loved ones plight in Iran. But the wife of Xiyue Wang, a naturalized American citizen from China who has been detained for more than a year, shifted course in the past few days and started to speak to reporters about her husband’s imprisonment.
In an interview with FP, Hua Qu, said she wanted to see the United States discuss her husband’s detention with Iran’s leadership.
“I hope that the U.S. government, that U.S. officials can directly engage Iran and discuss how best to resolve this situation,” she said.
Qu, 35, said that the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week in New York, along with the pending deadline next month for Trump to declare his stance on the nuclear deal, offered a “prime opportunity” for negotiations.
But she said she has been bitterly disappointed before.
“My hopes have been shattered time and time again in the past year. I really don’t know how to read into the upcoming political openings in this situation,” she told FP. “It’s really difficult for me to say I am optimistic or not. I just try to manage my expectations — not to overestimate.”
Her 37-year-old husband is a graduate student at Princeton University, who was arrested in August 2016 while he was carrying out research for his history dissertation at archives in Iran. Both the Obama and Trump administrations had chosen to keep the case quiet as the family hoped Wang would be released on humanitarian grounds.
But Tehran’s judiciary announced in July that Wang had been sentenced to a 10-year term for alleged “espionage” and the graduate student lost his appeal in August.
Qu, who moved to the United States from China, said Beijing has offered to help with her husband’s case.
“China would like to assist and they have shown sympathies with us, and I have been in regular communication with the Chinese MFA (ministry of foreign affairs),” she said.
Qu insisted her husband was merely an academic “nerd” who had done nothing nefarious and was only researching documents from Iran’s Qajar dynasty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“None of the documents that he received are confidential information. There is no indication they are confidential information,” she said. “In Iran, it is not a secret place that you cannot go to. It’s just libraries, archives.”
Qu said the uncertainty had taken a toll on her husband’s physical and mental health and on their young son.
She said that “this has been too long for my husband, and for my small family and for my son. When he left for Iran, my son was two years old, and now he is four years old. So it’s extremely difficult for us.”
Apart from the Namazis and Wang, an Iranian-American Karan Vafadari, an art gallery owner and a member of Iran’s Zorastrian religious minority, is imprisoned in Iran, along with his wife.
In addition, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared on Iran’s Kish Island in March 2007. Though it’s unclear if Levinson is still alive, the administration continues to work on his return.