An Iranian-American businessman has been arrested in Iran, making him the fifth U.S. citizen currently imprisoned in the country as Washington prepares to loosen economic restrictions on Tehran under the nuclear deal.
Siamak Namazi, an executive at Crescent Petroleum Co. and a prominent supporter of the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran, was reportedly detained two weeks ago while visiting family in Tehran and is being held in Evin prison.
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Namazi reportedly played a role in the early development of the National Iranian American Committee (NIAC). The U.S.-based organization worked closely with the White House to advocate for the nuclear deal, and has also been accused of lobbying for the interests of a segment of the Iranian regime.
The State Department said it is aware of the reports about Namazi’s detention and is monitoring the situation. The department had no additional details to share as of Thursday.
Namazi is the third foreign businessman arrested in Iran since September, according to reports. The government also detained a European businessman and a Lebanese tech expert visiting for a trade conference, according to IranWire, although there is no indication any of these arrests are related.
Investors have been flocking to Iran in anticipation of the relaxation of international sanctions under the Iran nuclear deal. However, visiting the country remains risky, and the State Department’s website warns U.S. travelers that they "may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran."
Namazi, whose family has business interests in Iran, has been a vocal advocate for the removal of international sanctions against the Islamic Republic. His family is reportedly well connected in Iran, with close links to a political circle that includes current President Hassan Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The reason for Namazi’s detention is unclear, although early reports indicate that he was arrested by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence division, which is controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The four other American citizens currently being held in Iran are Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was sentenced to 14 months in prison on supposed "espionage charges" earlier this month; Christian pastor Saeed Abedini; former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati; and former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007. All of the Americans, except Levinson, also held Iranian citizenship.
Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif on Thursday to discuss Iran’s detention of U.S. citizens.
"Prior to tomorrow’s multilateral discussion on Syria in Vienna, Austria, Secretary Kerry met bilaterally with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif today to follow up on the steps necessary to implement the JCPOA," said State Department spokesperson Mark Toner in a statement. "Secretary Kerry also raised the cases of our detained and missing U.S. citizens."
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently hinted that Iran would consider freeing the prisoners in exchange for the release of 19 Iranians currently serving time in the United States for sanctions violations.
Namazi played a role in the early development of the U.S.-based Iran advocacy group NIAC, the Washington Times reported in 2009. Prior to the organization’s creation, Namazi drafted a presentation in 1999 with NIAC founder Trita Parsi promoting the idea of a lobbying group that pushed Iranian interests such as the removal of U.S. sanctions.
Parsi went on to found NIAC, an advocacy group that pressed for ending sanctions, several years later. NIAC said in a statement on Friday that Namazi did not have a leadership role in the group, in response to media reports linking him to the organization.
"NIAC is deeply troubled by unconfirmed reports that Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American residing in Dubai, has been detained by Iranian authorities," said NIAC.
"False claims have been made on some websites, including one published under a pseudonym, that Mr. Namazi and his family have played a leadership role in NIAC," the statement continued. "While Mr. Namazi has known members of NIAC’s staff, neither he nor his family have had any leadership or any other significant role with NIAC."
The Daily Beast reported that Namazi’s email account might have been hacked after his arrest, with several of his American contacts reporting that they received suspicious "phishing" messages from his account. Similar messages were also sent to friends of the European businessman who was arrested in Iran in September, according to IranWire.