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And then there was one: Tehran still has one Iranian-American behind bars

“Never leave a buddy behind.” Secretary of State John Kerry recently invoked that mantra, which was engrained during his military service in Vietnam, in describing the effort to secure the release of Americans held prisoner in Iran. He described this commitment as “the most sacred pledge you can make” at an event celebrating the release of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian after 18 months’ detention in Iran on trumped-up charges.

There’s only one problem: in the recently concluded prisoner exchange between Washington and Tehran, Kerry did leave someone behind—in fact, he left at least two Americans still detained or unaccounted for in Iran. And in the relief and triumphalism over the release of Rezaian and four other U.S. citizens, those Americans still left in Iran have been all but forgotten.

At least Kerry’s speech made passing reference to Robert Levinson, the retired FBI agent who went missing in 2007 while on an ill-conceived CIA mission in Iran. And the Obama administration has since stepped up its public campaign to press for clues as to Levinson’s whereabouts. Still, Levinson’s family have described themselves as “devastated” that the prisoner exchange, which they only learned of through the media, yielded no new details on what happened to him after he was dispatched to the Iranian island of Kish as part of a bizarre, unauthorized intelligence operation.

The Levinson family reportedly reached a $2.5 million settlement with the CIA several years ago, and had the small satisfaction of seeing the CIA staffers who concocted the rogue mission fired or disciplined. Still, they are owed a far greater debt by a government that is trumpeting the fruits of its diplomacy with Iran; the Levinsons and the American people deserve some certainty from Tehran about the fate of a man missing for almost a decade as the direct consequence of a government-contracted mission.

Error of omission

But Levinson is not the only American left behind. Amazingly, in their public remarks about the prisoner exchange, neither Kerry nor President Obama bothered to even mention the name of Siamak Namazi, a 44-year-old Iranian-American who was jailed in Iran in October on unspecified charges and who remains behind bars to this day. And the same media figures who championed Rezaian’s plight have devoted relatively sparse advocacy to Siamak’s stint in prison.

Here I should acknowledge my bias: I have known Siamak professionally for about 18 years and I consider him a friend. Many others in Washington and around the world can say the same; thanks to Siamak’s varied professional activities and life-long fixation on the country of his birth, he is known in every corner of the small, insular world of Iran-obsessed pundits, academics, do-gooders, and business people. 

Siamak’s continuing unjust imprisonment underscores the very real risks and tragic realities of dealing with authoritarian states such as Iran. Even with a wide circle of colleagues and friends—including many who have influence in Washington or Tehran—in a world rife with abuse and human misery, the plight of one individual suffering at the hands of an unjust government can fall through the cracks all too easily. 

Working every angle

So what can be done? When it comes to dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, there is an inside strategy and an outside strategy. Initially, families and friends almost always gravitate toward the inside approach: call in a favor, use a brother-in-law’s business partner’s cousin as a conduit to a person of influence, hope that by avoiding implication in the bilateral estrangement, a quick and quiet solution can be found. 

And sometimes it is. However, all too often, the inside approach proves insufficient, and some combination—to paraphrase the strategic maxim of Iran’s reform movement—of pressure from outside and negotiation from within becomes necessary. There is no silver bullet for persuading Tehran to release innocents arrested on bogus charges, but the growing number of dual nationals who have gone through similar ordeals in Iran make a pretty compelling case that publicity seems to be one of the most effective weapons.

There is no silver bullet for persuading Tehran to release innocents arrested on bogus charges.

Former Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari, whose account of his four-month detention in 2009 was made into the movie Rosewater, said in 2012 that “no one has ever been released because they’ve remained silent, but many have…perished because they remained silent.”

One confirmation of the effectiveness of publicity is that interlocutors from the Iranian regime almost always counsel quiet entreaties rather than public campaigns. As Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Haleh Esfandiari told The Guardian in 2014, “publicity is the last thing the Iranian government wants.” Still, the pressure from Tehran makes the choice of whether to go public understandably agonizing, especially for those with family members still in Iran. 

Siamak’s case seems to be moving into a more public phase. Just last week, after a relative dearth of attention since the other Americans were released from prison, a number of major media outlets including Politico, The New York Times, and Reuters published stories, citing letters on his behalf by several Iranian-American organizations.

“[P]ublicity is the last thing the Iranian government wants.”

The real problem? The system

So after initially biting my tongue, this is my opening salvo on Siamak’s behalf. I suspect he might not want my advocacy; over the years, we’ve argued plenty about Iranian politics and U.S. policy. And I can imagine he might respond with a pointed reminder that an appeal on his behalf from an American think tanker, particularly from someone who has on occasion expressed criticism of the Iranian government, is hardly an exoneration in the eyes of Iranian hardliners.

But here’s the thing: the forces that led to Siamak’s arrest are not susceptible to evidence. If they were, he would never have been arrested in the first place, and he certainly would not have spent four months behind bars in the notorious Evin Prison. Siamak’s detention exposes yet again the central enduring failing of Iran’s post-revolutionary system: the absence of rule of law.

That is the reason for Siamak’s arrest—not his work for an Emirati oil company enmeshed in a contract dispute with Tehran; not his consulting activities or his advocacy of bilateral diplomacy; and certainly not the bogus smears against his family (remarkably, published under a pseudonym by an ostensibly reputable American publication even as Siamak was under interrogation in Iran). As I wrote when Jason Rezaian was first seized, there is no logic to Iran’s abuses, and no justification. All these explanations are attractive as defense mechanisms, a way to rationalize each arrest as an isolated incident with identifiable, even if not understandable, causes.

[T]here is no logic to Iran’s abuses, and no justification.


It is, of course, a false comfort. As is the canard that each arrest—each abuse of the basic rights of Iran’s citizens—can be attributed to Iranian hard-liners and the power struggle that has defined the country’s post-revolutionary politics. The hard-liners are only a symptom. The problem is the nezam—the system—and its engrained reliance on repression and a political culture of paranoia with roots in Iran’s pre-revolutionary history. 

Preserving the revolutionary system has ranked as the highest priority for Iran’s leadership, and even those who wish to see it moderated have subordinated that goal to defending the Islamic Republic against all challengers. That is why two of the system’s stalwarts, former prime minister Mir Hussain Mousavi and former speaker of the parliament Mehdi Karroubi, have just marked the end of their fifth year under house arrest.

Their audacity in challenging the outcome of Iran’s dubious 2009 presidential election threatened the system’s legitimacy, and even the moderates like President Hassan Rouhani have effectively acquiesced to their perpetual incarceration. 

Since his 2013 election, when he campaigned on vague promises to release political prisoners, Rouhani has signaled that he continues quiet efforts on their behalf. But five years of imprisonment and an intensification of the rhetoric against “sedition” (as the 2009 protests are described in Iran) underscore that quiet efforts are not likely to succeed. Here, as with Siamak and other dual nationals, the “inside game” is simply insufficient to overcome the system’s authoritarian impulses. 

Iran needs an outside strategy—real, meaningful, sustained pressure from the international community to release political prisoners and engage in political liberalization. In 2013, I described Mousavi and Karroubi as “the two most important political prisoners in the world, and yet it is often unclear if anyone beyond Iran remembers their names.” That applies particularly to Washington. As with Siamak’s case, the names of Karroubi and Mousavi have gone almost unspoken by both President Obama and Secretary Kerry.

What Tehran owes

Since the much-heralded prisoner exchange, sanctions relief has poured an additional $100 billion into Iranian coffers and a slew of lucrative new deals have been announced with great fanfare. Meanwhile, Tehran is up to its old tricks: Bahman Daroshafaei, a BBC journalist with a British passport, was arrested a few weeks ago, and Fariborz Raisdana, a 70-year-old economist who was jailed for a year in 2012 for criticizing government policy, was briefly re-arrested just this week. Daroshafaei’s mother wrote a letter to Rouhani, declaring:

“I’m writing to you because I think you owe me. Like you owe millions of Iranians who voted for you. You know better than anyone else that we didn’t vote for you just to lift the sanctions…we voted for you to keep the hope alive, to have more justice, to have more kindness in our society, to stop the brain drain and to help our youth build our country.”

Tehran owes all Iranians something better than what they have today – a country where their rights are protected. The only way that is going to happen is if the names of those who are unjustly imprisoned are not forgotten.

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