Americans held prisoner in Iran saw promise of better relations
By Farnaz Fassihi
When Siamak Namazi traveled to Tehran, Iran, in the summer of 2015, Iran had just signed a landmark nuclear deal, and the government was encouraging expatriates to return home and bring their expertise and dollars.
So the 51-year-old Iranian American businessperson flew from his home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to visit his parents and attend a funeral in Iran.
But he was arrested and charged with “collaborating with a hostile government” — an allusion to the United States — and eventually became the longest-held U.S. citizen that Iran has acknowledged imprisoning. In January, he went on a hunger strike for seven days to bring attention to his ordeal.
Last Thursday, Namazi, along with four other dual national Iranian Americans, became part of a prisoner swap deal between Iran and the U.S.
Namazi stated he’d been a hostage for 7 1/2 years — “six times the duration of the hostage crisis,” he said in an interview from prison in March with CNN, referring to the U.S. Embassy staff who were taken hostage in Iran during the 1979 revolution and held for 444 days. “We’ve been taken for one reason and one reason only — and that’s because we’re U.S. citizens.”
In exchange for releasing the Americans, the U.S. agreed to release five Iranians jailed for violating sanctions against Iran and to release about $6 billion of Iran’s frozen assets being held in South Korea. The money will be transferred to a bank account in Qatar and can only be used by Iran for humanitarian purposes, such as paying for medicine and medical equipment.
The ordeal for the Americans being held in Iran is hardly over. Iran’s foreign ministry said the five will be allowed to board a plane out of Iran only when the money lands in the Qatari bank account. For now, they have been released from prison and remain under house arrest at a Tehran hotel.
The other American prisoners include Emad Sharghi, 58, a businessperson sentenced in 2020 to 10 years in prison on spying charges; and Morad Tahbaz, 68, a British-born businessperson and wildlife conservationist who was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years on charges of “contacts with the U.S. government.”
The U.S. government has not named the other two prisoners, citing their families’ requests that they remain anonymous. One is a businessperson from California who was detained nearly a year ago, and the other is a woman who worked for nongovernment organizations in Afghanistan and was arrested in 2023, according to people familiar with the deal and Iranian media reports.
Namazi grew up all around the world and has a master’s degree from the London Business School. He comes from a well-known family from the city of Shiraz in central Iran, where a major hospital is named after them. Namazi had traveled back and forth to Iran and had lived in Tehran, working at a family-run consulting company.
He became an expert on Iran’s economy, markets and inevitably the politics that overshadow all sectors in Iran. He studied the impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy and was recognized by the World Economic Forum as one of its Young Global Leaders.
“It’s a tragedy for someone as talented as Siamak to waste away in prison for eight years, some of the most productive years of his life,” said Ahmad Kiarostami, a close friend of Namazi’s. “He is a fighter. Even in jail, he wanted to stay on top of international news and read as many books as he could.”
Tahbaz, a wealthy businessperson who had lived in Connecticut and was known among friends for his big game hunts, discovered on his trips to Iran that the country’s Asiatic cheetahs were in danger of extinction. So he decided to act.
In 2018, he co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of endangered animals in Iran. In 2018, he and eight other employees of the organization were arrested on spying charges.
Tahbaz suffered from prostate cancer during detention and caught COVID-19 three times, his daughter Tara said in an April interview with Reuters. His sister told the BBC that he had lost 88 pounds in detention. Tahbaz has three children. His wife, Vida, 64, traveled to Iran after he was detained and has since been banned from leaving the country.
“Morad has always been a man dedicated to his family, community, wildlife and Iran,” said Dr. Kaveh Alizadeh, a plastic surgeon in New York and friend of Tahbaz. “He spent his life trying to save the critically endangered species.”
Sharghi, 58, relocated to Tehran on a whim with his wife in 2017 after their two daughters left for college in the U.S. The couple had vacationed throughout the country and enjoyed reconnecting with relatives and Iranian culture.
A partner at a company in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, leasing and selling private airplanes, Sharghi had explored business opportunities with Iranian startups.
In an interview with The New York Times in 2021, his wife, Bahareh Amidi, a poet, described her husband as an angel who was trapped in a jail cell without his wings. She said he was “the kindest, gentlest partner, the most present father.”
In 2018, security forces raided the couple’s home and arrested Sharghi. After an eight-month detention, he was released from prison and later exonerated of all charges. But authorities had held on to his passport, and when he tried to flee the country in 2021 through a land border, they arrested him and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
The ordeal for the American prisoners and their families is expected to end by September with their planned departure from Iran. But recovering from the trauma may take longer.
“The pain our family has gone through over the past three years is indescribable,” Ariana and Hannah Sharghi, Sharghi’s daughters, wrote in a 2021 essay in The Washington Post. The cherry blossom tree in their backyard had bloomed and withered again, they said, without him present.