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Congressional group urges Biden to prioritize release of US citizens jailed in Iran

Meeting joined by prisoners’ families, former detainees of Islamic Republic, who call on US president not to link prisoners’ fate to outcome of stalled nuclear talks

This undated photo shows Baquer Namazi, left, and his son Siamak, who are both currently detained in Iran, in an unidentified location. (Babak Namazi via AP)
This undated photo shows Baquer Namazi, left, and his son Siamak, who are both currently detained in Iran, in an unidentified location. (Babak Namazi via AP)

A bipartisan congressional group advocating for US citizens imprisoned in Iran appealed to US President Joe Biden and his administration, urging the release of detainees be prioritized before granting sanctions relief to Tehran as part of a restored nuclear deal.

The cross-party American Hostage Task Force met Thursday on Capitol Hill with both relatives of prisoners and Americans formerly jailed in Iran. The meeting was part of efforts to highlight the issue, with much of the Biden administration’s focus vis-à-vis Iran set on reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the nuclear is formally known.

Democratic Congressman Ted Deutsch of Florida, the group’s co-chair, said during the meeting that the release of the detainees must be at the “top of the agenda,” calling for every US citizen to be returned “immediately.”

“Iran cannot financially benefit from a nuclear agreement while still actively holding Americans,” Deutsch charged, telling the National news site that he had stressed to the Biden administration that the matter must be a priority.

The Islamic Republic has been accused by critics of practicing hostage diplomacy, which involves detaining foreign nationals on false charges — usually espionage — in order to extract financial concessions and prisoner exchanges with their home countries. Iran has denied the accusations.

The US has noted that four of its nationals are imprisoned in Iran on charges of spying and attempting to overthrow the state: Siamak Namazi, imprisoned since 2015; Baquer Namazi, Siamak’s father who was arrested in 2016 while trying to free his son; Emad Sharghi, arrested in 2018; and Morad Tahbaz, who was also arrested four years ago.

Nuclear talks between Tehran and Western powers have stalled after Iran’s latest reply to an EU draft proposal for a deal squashed hopes for a diplomatic horizon. The troubled talks have rallied hostages and their families to pressure the US to not tie their fates to the nuclear talks.

On Tuesday, Siamak Namazi shared his thoughts through tweets posted by his lawyer, urging the US to not fuse the struggle for the prisoners’ release with the stalled negotiations. His father is currently on medical furlough from prison but is unable to leave the country.

“Gambling the fate of US hostages in Iran on the success of the nuclear talks is negligent & cruel. We must be freed first, & now!” Namazi said.

Addressing the congressional task force, Sharghi’s sister Neda called on the White House to “secure the freedom of our loved ones” and not to conflate “broader geopolitical issues” with efforts to release the detainees.

“We all have everyone’s empathy and sympathy. What we don’t have is the moral courage to make the really difficult decisions that have to be made to recover our hostages,” she said.

US State Department Ned Price told reporters that the administration treats the prisoner talks on “a separate track” to the nuclear deal.

“That is why even in the absence of a JCPOA, at least at this moment, we’re continuing to do everything we can to see the release of these American detainees at the first possible opportunity,” he said.

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