The son of an Iran-born U.S. permanent resident jailed in Iran since 2016 on security charges that his family denies says a U.S. official told him Tehran is not willing to discuss releasing his father, even as the nations take steps toward a prisoner deal.
In an interview for this week's edition of VOA's Flashpoint Iran podcast, Darian Dalili gave an exclusive account of his August 11 phone conversation with acting U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley.
Dalili said the U.S. State Department informed him he would get a call from Paley after he emailed several department staffers on August 10 to complain about his father, Shahab Dalili, being excluded from the five jailed U.S. citizens whom Iran said it would release as part of an agreement announced that day with the U.S.
Under the deal, which has yet to be finalized, Iran said it transferred four Americans from prison to house arrest, with the fifth already confined to house arrest — as a step toward letting them return to the U.S. In exchange, the U.S. said it would lift sanctions on $6 billion of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks and allow Tehran to use them to buy humanitarian goods under U.S. oversight.
The Biden administration and Iran have been engaged in indirect negotiations on a prisoner deal since May 2021.
The announced terms of the deal did not address the fate of several non-citizen U.S. residents jailed in Iran, including Shahab Dalili.
The elder Dalili is a retired Iranian ship captain who emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 2014 upon being granted legal permanent residency. He was arrested while visiting Iran for his father's funeral in 2016 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly cooperating with a hostile government, a reference to the U.S.
Dalili's wife and two sons have since become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, signed into law in December 2020, U.S. authorities are obliged to secure the safe recovery of U.S. nationals deemed wrongfully detained abroad, with lawful permanent residents being included in the definition of U.S. nationals.
Asked by VOA to respond to Darian Dalili's comments about his phone call with Paley, the State Department sent a reply Thursday repeating a statement that it has made several times at news briefings since the August 10 agreement was announced.
"Shahab Dalili has not been determined to be wrongfully detained at this time," a spokesperson wrote.
"We do not always make wrongful detention determinations public. For privacy, safety, and/or operational reasons, we do not get into the details of our internal or diplomatic discussions on reported detainees," the spokesperson added.
The following transcript of Darian Dalili's August 28 interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: In your phone call with acting U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley, what did you tell him and what did he tell you?
Darian Dalili: I was very upset, very emotional. During that phone call, I told him you have left my father behind. I told him the U.S. government has given up and has given in to the Iranians' demands.
Basically, his point was that Iran is not willing to even discuss my father. And he also said a bunch of things that were not new and that the State Department always says, like: 'We are looking at every case individually.'
Overall, the phone call did not have any outcome, just the fact that I made my feelings known.
VOA: You mentioned that Paley told you something about Iran not being willing to discuss your father's case. That sounds relatively new. What exactly did he tell you?
Dalili: He said they are not even willing to have my father be part of the conversation. To this day, I do not 100% believe that.
VOA: Why not?
Dalili: So when you talk about this prisoner deal, there are Americans who are unhappy that Iran is getting a lot of money. I do see that part of it. But I like to look at things from both sides.
Looking at it from the Iranian regime's perspective, they are being humiliated by this deal. Iran is saying, 'we have sold a bunch of oil to South Korea, the money never came back to us, and now you [the U.S.] are saying the money from the oil — I'm going to put it on top of this closet. You [Iran] cannot reach it, only I [the U.S.] can reach it. You have to tell me what you want to buy with it. If I like what you tell me, I will go buy that thing and give it to you.' That is the deal.
To me, the fact that the Iranians have accepted such a deal is a sign of desperation. And if they are desperate, they would not say no to the opportunity of getting even more money for one additional prisoner.
VOA: Is that what you think the Iranian government wants — more money in exchange for your father?
Dalili: In general, if the Iranians think that by releasing more people they could possibly get America to give them more, they will not say no to that.
VOA: The State Department spokesperson said in a recent briefing that "indicators" of wrongful detention are needed to make that designation for anyone, and they have not done so in your father's case. What kinds of indicators is the State Department looking for?
Dalili: Thank you for that question. If you found the answer, please let me know. I have been writing letters for years to the State Department during this administration and the previous administration, asking them: 'What do you need? What is the roadblock? What is stopping you from making this designation?' I have heard nothing back.
VOA: What kind of indicators do you think they are looking for?
Dalili: My honest opinion is that there are no key indicators [remaining to be identified], because the charges against my father [aiding a hostile nation] and his sentence [10 years] were identical to several other Americans who are being released [in this prisoner deal].
VOA: So if your father has faced the same charges as these U.S. citizens who are going to be released, is there something else the State Department needs to deem your father wrongfully detained? Or could that mean the State Department thinks your father was not wrongfully detained?
Dalili: If my father was not wrongfully detained, that means he is guilty of this one and only charge being levied against him — aiding and abetting the U.S. If he is guilty of that, then he is your [America's] asset. Go get back your asset.
That is why they [U.S. officials] are sitting on their hands and not making a designation one way or the other. Because they know that whichever way they make the designation, the result is that they have to go get my father back.
Having said that, I personally 100% believe that my father is innocent of the charges levied against him, because he has never been political and does not have the characteristics he would need to be a spy or do any sort of espionage — he does not have it in him.
But, if you want to say he has done it [spying], OK, go get back your asset.