Family members and advocates for a father and son imprisoned in Iran are pressing the Trump administration to take urgent action and set up a separate humanitarian channel with Tehran to specifically negotiate the safe return of the pair.
Siamak and Baquer Namazi, a father and son who are citizens of both the United States and Iran, have been held for more than a year and a half in Iran's notorious Evin prison.
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While the family members and those assisting them have generally applauded the Trump administration's public statements demanding the return of the Namazis and all Americans unjustly held in Iran, they believe that with 81-year-old Baquer Namazi's health failing, the time has come for more constructive and serious negotiations with Tehran.
Babak Namazi, Siamak’s brother and Baquer’s son, along with Jared Genser, the Namazi's attorney, are in Washington, D.C. this week for high-level meetings at the White House and State Department. They met with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on Wednesday, and on Thursday planned to sit-down with Dina Powell, Trump's deputy national adviser, at the White House.
"Every second that goes by and they are still where they are is a second delayed," Babak Namazi told reporters Thursday before the White House meeting. "My desperation every day is growing exponentially. This is beyond description what my family is going through. We just really hope that this nightmare can end soon."
If the Trump administration could negotiate with such a dangerous, rogue regime as North Korea over the return of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student imprisoned by the North Koreans, it can find a way to set up a constructive dialogue about the swift and safe return of the Namazis, Genser said.
The administration has had more time to respond to Baquer Namazi’s life-threatening condition than when they were forced to act swiftly to secure Warmbier's return after abruptly learning he was in a coma and his life was hanging in the balance, Genser said.
Warmbier died just days after returning to the United States.
The Namazi family warned the administration in September that Baquer had undergone emergency heart surgery in Iran to install a pacemaker after complaining for months that he was suffering from severe fatigue and disorientation to prison guards. The same month, Trump delivered a speech to the United Nations in which he demanded that Iran free all Americans, as well as those from other countries, whom the regime is holding captive on false charges.
The previous day the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion declaring that the Namazis are being held illegally and demanding their immediate release. At a sideline meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that same week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raised Baquer's case, urging his release on humanitarian grounds.
Just this week, the Senate adopted a resolution demanding the release of all American citizen hostages and legal permanent residents illegally detained in Iran and urging Trump to follow through on campaign promises and make their release a top priority. The bipartisan resolution, sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz, (R. Texas), and Patrick Leahy, (D., Vt.), followed the passage of a similar House version.
An attorney for Nizar Zakka, a U.S. permanent legal resident who has been held in Iran for two years and whose health is also suffering, applauded the Senate's action, as well as the strong messages the Trump administration has sent in recent months to the Iranians.
"For the first time in years, the U.S. government sent a united and clear message to the Iranian regime that it will no longer tolerate using innocent people such as Nizar Zakka as political leverage," said the attorney, Jason Poblete. "It's time for responsible parties around the world to step up, follow America's lead and strongly urge Iran to release Nizar who remains very sick and who is being refused medical care."
The Namazis are urging the Trump administration to do more to engage directly with Tehran. They point to Trump's promise at the height of the presidential campaign that he would not tolerate Iran taking Americans prisoner on his watch.
On Oct. 23, 2016, then-candidate Trump tweeted, "Well, Iran has done it again. Taken two of our people and asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn't happen if I'm president."
In recent months, the Iranians have pushed back, arguing that the United States is holding dozens of its citizens unlawfully and has imposed new sanctions that Tehran argues violate international law. Those calls for the United States to release Iranians has spurred talk of another prisoner exchange like the one the Obama administration negotiated as part of a side deal to the nuclear agreement. Five U.S. citizens were released from Iran in exchange for the United States freeing seven Iranians who had violated U.S. law.
In that deal, the Obama administration paid $1.7 billion, $400 million in cash, on the same day the prisoner swap occurred.