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Iranian American woman asks Biden admin not to forget her husband imprisoned in Iran

As the U.S. and Iran close in on a deal, an Iranian American woman appeals to the White House to include her husband in any prisoner swap.

An Iranian American woman is appealing to the Biden administration to secure the release of her husband, who has been imprisoned in Iran for six years, and says she fears he will be left behind if Washington agrees to a prisoner swap with Tehran.

Shahab Dalili, 59, was arrested and imprisoned in 2016 while he was visiting Tehran for his father’s funeral, according to his wife, Nahid Dalili. The family had recently immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Gainesville, Virginia, when Dalili was detained. Although he is a legal permanent U.S. resident with a green card, he is not a citizen.

“It’s important for Shahab to come back home. If there is a deal, if they are trying to release the hostages, then all the hostages should be free,” Nahid Dalili said in an interview.

She said Iran charged her husband with "aiding and abetting" the U.S.

In the years since his detention, Dalili said, she chose not to speak publicly about her husband’s case for fear of jeopardizing his possible release. But when she heard Biden administration officials refer to “four” Americans imprisoned in Iran, she decided last month to break her silence.

Shahab Dalili.
Shahab Dalili.Courtesy Nahid Dalili

“I want them to hear me. They can’t say they didn’t know about this,” she said. “The Biden administration shouldn’t leave Shahab behind. He is a permanent legal resident, and all of his family are citizens.”

Human rights groups say Shahab Dalili is one of multiple foreign nationals being held on baseless charges without due process. Iran denies the accusation and says all those detained have been prosecuted in accordance with Iranian law. Iran’s U.N. mission did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iran and world powers appear close to clinching an agreement that would revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal

U.S. officials say they are negotiating a parallel agreement with Iran to address the fate of Americans held in Iran and, possibly, Iranian nationals imprisoned in the U.S.

The final issue to be resolved to restore the 2015 nuclear accord involves Tehran’s demand that the U.S. government lift the blacklisting of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, current and former officials say. The possible move has already drawn fierce criticism from Republicans in Congress.

The U.S. special envoy to Iran, Robert Malley, who is overseeing the negotiations over restoring the 2015 nuclear accord, has vowed not to repeat a 2016 prisoner swap that freed a group of Americans but failed to secure the release of Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American businessman held in Tehran, and a U.S. legal resident, Nizar Zakka. Zakka was released in 2019; Namazi remains behind bars, and his elderly father is not being allowed to leave Iran.

Asked about Dalili’s case, a spokesperson said the State Department “regularly assesses the circumstances of cases brought to the Department’s attention in Iran and elsewhere,” adding, “Due to privacy considerations we are not in a position to comment further.”

The spokesperson added that the Iranian government must fully account for U.S. citizens missing or abducted in Iran.

The Biden administration has called for the release of four U.S. citizens held in Iran, without referring to legal permanent residents like Dalili.

Under a law adopted in 2020, known as the Levinson Act, the U.S. government is obligated to work for the release of both U.S. citizens and green card holders, whom the law describes as “U.S. nationals.”

“Unlike 2015, when the Levinson Law was not in force, the Biden administration now has more tools and more direction from Congress to secure the release of all US nationals held in Iran” including Dalili and others, wrote Jason Poblete, a lawyer helping to represent Dalili.

Poblete is also representing the family of Jamshid Sharmahd, a legal U.S. resident who lived in California before he was alleged to have been abducted while traveling in the United Arab Emirates and moved to a prison in Iran. Sharmahd, who has German citizenship, has been denied any contact with his family since 2001 and faces a potential death sentence for charges of “corruption on earth,” according to Amnesty International.

Last year, a bipartisan group of four senators urged the Biden administration not to reach any agreement with Iran without ensuring the release of Americans held in Iran. In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the senators — Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Coons, D-Del. — specifically called on the administration to address the plight of permanent legal residents “such as Shahab Dalili."

Two former cellmates of Dalili who were released in 2019 have urged the Biden administration not to agree to any deal without ensuring Dalili’s freedom. Zakka, a legal U.S. resident who was imprisoned for four years in Iran, and Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen who was detained while conducting academic research in Iran as a Princeton University graduate student, have issued online appeals for Dalili’s release.

“He needs to be included & come home if Biden is going to do a prisoner swap deal with Iran,” Wang wrote on Twitter.

Dalili worked for more than 26 years for the Iranian state shipping company, IRISL, retiring in 2012 as deputy general manager of the company’s department of maritime affairs. The U.S. has sanctioned the company a number of times, alleging it is involved in arms proliferation. In 2014, Dalili, his wife and two sons immigrated to the U.S., where he set up a consultancy business in the marine industry.

Four U.S. citizens are known to be held by Iran: Siamak Namazi, a business consultant who has been behind bars since 2015; his elderly father, Baquer Namazi, who is no longer in prison but has not been allowed to leave the country; Morad Tahbaz, 66, a conservationist with U.S. and British citizenship, who was arrested in 2018; and Emad Shargi, 56, a businessman first detained in 2018, later released and then charged again in 2020.