If a loved one is being held hostage by an authoritarian regime, every phone call from overseas could be proof of life.
That is the reality for the families of Americans Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak and Baquer Namazi, who are being held in Iran as bargaining chips in broader talks with Washington about national security. So when Bahareh Shargi, Emad’s wife, didn’t get an expected call from Evin Prison recently, she was desperate to know why.
Shargi hoped the nightmare of captivity would end before Iran’s June elections. But as that vote came and went, Tehran stopped engaging in international nuclear talks and discussions about hostages. The simultaneous pause of both tracks has renewed fears that hostages will always take a back seat to the United States’ larger strategic interests — in this case, preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb.
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Biden administration officials say they are committed to bringing the four Americans home, whether nuclear talks succeed or not. The how and when remain elusive. Negotiations are a complex game of three-dimensional chess, the pawns resetting as Washington and Tehran make moves on different areas of the board.
While the United States and Iranian-backed militias trade shots at each other’s interests in Iraq and Syria, Iran has begun alarming new work to produce enriched uranium metal. Last week, U.S. prosecutors charged four Iranian intelligence agents with conspiring to kidnap an exiled Iranian dissident in Brooklyn.
At the same time, the United States has confirmed it is allowing Iran to use previously frozen funds to pay Japanese and South Korean companies. U.S. officials frame this more as a favor to allied countries than to Iran. But such moves, which can be seen as a reprieve for Tehran, are a kick in the gut for people such as Babak Namazi. His brother and ailing 84-year-old father were hostages at the onset of the nuclear deal reached under President Barack Obama, and remained so when President Donald Trump left it in 2018. They are still hostages today.
“It’s time to try something new. We cannot go on anymore like this,” Namazi explained from Dubai, where he works as an international corporate lawyer. “Whenever there’s an opportunity for the administration to use any tool or opportunity as leverage, I would expect the administration uses it to save my father’s life.”
Like Namazi, Bahareh Shargi is placing her trust in the Biden administration, which has showed immense care but little clarity.
Video: Emad Shargi's wife, Bahareh
Robert Malley, Biden’s Iran envoy, says that when he was helping to negotiate the Obama-era nuclear deal, he talked directly to the Iranians about American detainees. Now, after Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” sharpened Tehran’s distrust of Washington, Iran insists on an intermediary. When talks are on, Malley says Britain represents U.S. interests when it comes to the matter of hostages.
“We don’t want to leave any of the unjustly detained Americans behind,” Malley said during a recent interview at the State Department. “We spend as much time on that as we do on anything else.”
This concern is a balm but not an antidote.
“Families in my situation do not find long-term or even short-term comfort in empathy,” Namazi said. “It’s action that’s been lacking for the past six years.”
Sarah Levinson Moriarty knows Namazi’s anguish. She begged three U.S. presidents for information about the 2007 disappearance of her father, Robert Levinson, and only gained a bittersweet peace last year, when U.S. officials said he died in Iran sometime before the covid-19 pandemic. She hopes Biden finds the courage to make a deal that brings the hostages and Levinson’s remains home, even if it is politically unpopular.
“I think they do care, and I think they believe they care, but when it comes down to making a decision, whether it’s big picture or individual American, they always choose the big picture instead of the individual American,” she said.
It’s partly just the nature of government, says Robert C. O’Brien, who was Trump’s hostage envoy and later national security adviser, that detained Americans slip down the agenda:
Trump’s transactional approach to hostage recovery won him as many critics as fans, and it confirmed two things: Freeing Americans relies on a president prioritizing it, and governments require new tools to stop the cycle.
Hostage advocates argue that the government should also collect the billions of dollars Iran owes its victims and use the 2020 Levinson Act to authorize wider sanctions. In the longer-term, Malley says the United States is discussing unifying international efforts to increase pressure on captors.
But that does little for the hostages now.
Bahareh Shargi finally did get that call from Evin Prison. Hearing Emad’s voice allowed her to breathe again. But she, like all the families, wishes they had better news to share.