Two Americans and a U.S. permanent resident whom Washington says were held hostage by Iran for years until it freed them during the term of former President Donald Trump have urged his successor Joe Biden not to make gestures toward Tehran until it frees other U.S. hostages.
In messages to VOA Persian in recent days, U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, Chinese American researcher Xiyue Wang and Lebanese U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka said Iran’s release of its remaining American hostages should be a precondition for any U.S. negotiations or concessions to Tehran under President Biden, who took office last week.
Biden has promised to offer Iran a “credible path back to diplomacy” if it returns to “strict compliance” with a 2015 nuclear deal in which it agreed to curb nuclear activities that could be diverted toward making nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief from world powers. Tehran has been escalating its violations of those nuclear curbs since 2019 in retaliation for Trump’s withdrawal from the deal the previous year and his unilateral tightening of U.S. sanctions.
Trump said the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was not tough enough on Iran. Biden has said he would rejoin the JCPOA as a “starting point” toward further negotiations to strengthen and extend its provisions if Iran resumes strict compliance. Tehran has said Washington should make the first move by lifting its sanctions.
In a January 20 interview with VOA Persian TV as part of its coverage of Biden’s inauguration, Wang said the new U.S. president should leverage the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ policy of tightening U.S. sanctions to win the release of all Americans held in Iran.
Wang was jailed in Iran in August 2016 during the term of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and was released in December 2019 in a Swiss-mediated and Trump-approved prisoner swap that included the U.S. release of an Iranian scientist who spent 13 months in U.S. detention.
“The Biden administration should not rush to return to the JCPOA,” Wang said. “Even after agreeing to the JCPOA [in 2015], Iran continued with its hostage-taking policy [to win concessions from the U.S.], showing they were not interested in changing their behavior,” he added.
Four Iranian-American dual nationals are jailed or barred from leaving Iran for what their supporters describe as bogus charges: businessman Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in October 2015; his father and former U.N. official Baquer Namazi, who was detained in February 2016 and has been on a medical furlough from prison since 2018; environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who was arrested in January 2018; and businessman Emad Sharghi, whose detention in December 2020 was first reported earlier this month.
Zakka, a U.S.-based Internet freedom advocate who was jailed by Iran in October 2015 and freed in June 2019 at the request of his native Lebanon in a U.S.-welcomed gesture, said he hopes Biden will listen to the concerns of former hostages such as himself.
He warned against a repeat of the U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran under the Obama administration in which Biden served as vice president, saying it left him languishing in prison.
“I was in jail while Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was taking photos with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry,” Zakka said in his January 20 appearance on VOA Persian TV.
The Trump administration held no formal talks with Iran’s Islamist rulers, but agreed to two prisoner swaps with them through the mediation of Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in the Islamic Republic. Washington and Tehran have had no official relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which Iran’s anti-American ruling clerics seized power.
In the second Trump-approved prisoner swap following the December 2019 exchange, Iran allowed White, the Navy veteran, to return home in June 2020 almost two years after detaining him, while the U.S. granted an early release to an Iranian American medical doctor who had served 16 months in prison.
“Michael believes that the U.S. government should not make any concessions [toward Iran] until the Iranian government releases the remaining American hostages,” White’s spokesman Jonathan Franks said in a message sent to VOA Persian on Monday.
Obama also secured a prisoner swap with Iran in January 2016, freeing seven Iranians held in the United States in return for Iran releasing four Iranian American prisoners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.
In a January 12 op-ed, Rezaian appealed to the incoming Biden administration to ensure continuity in U.S. hostage recovery policy by extending the tenure of Trump’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens. Seven days later, Biden’s Secretary of State nominee Anthony Blinken praised Carstens’ work and said the incoming administration asked Carstens to stay on.
"A smooth transition between administrations is vital to avoid derailing progress in the efforts to release hostages that are already underway,” Rezaian wrote. He also cited relatives of American hostages as saying Carstens “regularly checks in with [them] by phone to provide updates and to show that someone in the U.S. government cares and is fighting for them.”
Rezaian did not immediately respond to a VOA Persian email asking whether he agrees with Wang, White and Zakka that the Biden administration also should make future negotiations with Iran conditional on the release of remaining American hostages.
But in a February 2020 tweet, Rezaian said he believes the policy of making “no concessions” to hostage-takers does not work.
“First, administrations often end up negotiating in secret & then denying it. Second, if there’s no negotiation, the hostage is often killed,” Rezaian wrote.
Iran has accused the United States of hostage-taking for the arrests of several Iranians on various charges under U.S. law in recent years, including last week’s detention of political commentator and U.S. permanent resident Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi. The U.S. Department of Justice said Afrasiabi was charged with acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service.