WASHINGTON — The family of an Iranian-American imprisoned in Iran and his elderly father, who has been banned from leaving the country, appealed to the Biden administration on Monday to make their freedom a condition for any future agreements with Tehran.
The call came a day after President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the administration was communicating with Iran over the fate of Americans detained in Iran. The administration has said it is open to attending talks with world powers and Iran to discuss Tehran's nuclear program.
Siamak Namazi has been in prison for more than five years and his 84-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, was arrested five years ago to the day at Tehran airport after being told he would be allowed to visit his son.
"As the Biden administration develops its new Iran policy, my family expects that President Biden and his administration will not make concessions or deals with Iran that do not include and indeed require as a precondition the release of my father and Siamak," Babak Namazi, brother of Siamak Namazi and son of Baquer Namazi, told reporters in an online news conference.
He said the approach by the previous two administrations under former presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama had "failed" to win the release of his father and brother.
The family revealed for the first time Monday that the elderly father appeared to be on the verge of freedom a year ago after Iranian authorities informed him his sentence had been commuted and his case closed. But when Baquer Namazi later tried to obtain an Iranian passport as he was encouraged to do, he was told in May 2020 that he was banned from leaving the country by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps, his son said.
"At the time, as you can imagine, we were overjoyed, privately, that finally the nightmare may be over for my father," Babak Namazi said. "It is beyond outrageous that Iran continues playing with my father's life."
Namazi said he considers his father and brother to be "hostages." He urged Iran to allow his father to depart Iran immediately, saying his father was in poor health and suffered from heart ailments.
"There exists no legal basis or justification for preventing my 84-year-old frail father from leaving even under Iranian law," Babak Namazi said.
Iran's U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Namazis were sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison on charges of collaborating with the United States, Iran's arch adversary.
Human rights groups believe dozens of foreign citizens who also have Iranian nationality are being held in Iran. They accuse the regime of using the detained foreigners as bargaining chips and leverage with other governments.
Iran denies the accusation and says the foreign nationals have been lawfully detained and prosecuted.
Baquer Namazi underwent triple-bypass surgery before he was imprisoned and had other heart-related medical procedures during his detention. He was released from prison on medical furlough in 2018.
Babak Namazi grew emotional as he described his father's condition.
"Aside from physical ailments, he's under extreme mental torment to say the least," he said.
"It's very difficult for me to say this, I really believe that my father is just hanging on to see my brother come out [of Iran]."
Iranian authorities have convicted and imprisoned another Iranian-American since Biden was elected in November, NBC News previously reported.
Emad Shargi, 56, was summoned to a Tehran court Nov. 30 and told that he had been convicted of espionage without a trial and sentenced to 10 years, according to his family. He had previously been cleared of any charges.
Apart from Shargi and the Namazis, a fourth American is also held in Iran — Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American environmental activist who also holds British citizenship.
Asked about Americans held in Iran, National Security Adviser Sullivan told CBS News on Sunday that the administration had "begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue, yes, and we will continue to do so as we go forward."
Sullivan called the detentions an "utter outrage" and added, "It will be a significant priority of this administration to get those Americans safely back home."
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said there is no direct communication with the U.S. on any issue, including on detainees, according to Iranian media.
However, Sullivan did not say there were direct talks between Washington and Tehran.
Khatibzadeh said Tehran's priority is to secure the release of Iranians imprisoned in the U.S. and that the subject had been raised with the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles American interests in the country.
The newly named U.S. envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, spoke with the Namazi family over the weekend, according to the family's lawyer, Jared Genser.
Soon after his swearing in, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to relatives of Americans held overseas, including those in Iran. Babak Namazi said Blinken showed "empathy" and said he was encouraged so far by the Biden administration's approach on the issue.