The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Iran still has three American hostages. So far, Trump has done little to free them.

An image of Michael White, who was released after being detained for two years in Iran, posing with U.S. special envoy for Iran Brian Hook is displayed behind Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Earlier this month, Iran released Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran who had been imprisoned in Tehran for nearly two years.

White’s liberation coincided with the release of two Iranian scientists who had been detained in the United States for similarly long stretches of time. It was the latest in a series of prisoner swaps between Tehran and Washington.

The State Department claims that it’s now turning its attention to bringing home the three Americans who are still being held hostage inside the Islamic republic.

All three men are dual nationals of the United States and Iran. That shouldn’t be a complicating factor. But both Washington and Tehran seem to regard it as such.

That is a problem.

More coverage by Jason Rezaian: Iran's hostage factory

So far, although the Trump administration has succeeded in freeing several Americans held hostage around the world, it would appear that they have done very little to advocate for the rights of these three Americans long held in Iran.

“They [did] a good job of getting people back, but this is the end of the road, and we need to get these last few people home,” Nizar Zakka told me. “If not, I will have doubts about their commitment to dual nationals.” Zakka is a U.S. permanent resident who was held hostage in Iran from 2015 until last year.

President Trump’s Iran envoys must eliminate any lingering ambiguity about their commitment to getting these men freed.

“As an outside observer, it’s striking that none of the American hostages released from Iran have been dual-national Americans, despite some having been there for a very long time,” Richard Ratcliffe, a British national whose Iranian-born wife, Nazanin, has been held hostage in Iran for over four years, told me. “The fear is there are different tiers of American citizen.”

Ratcliffe says that, in the years he’s spent advocating for his wife’s freedom, the U.K. government has repeatedly used his wife’s Iranian origin as an excuse for failing to win her release. “It would be a shame if the U.S. were also to follow this path, and starts to pick and choose who it brings home.”

The Americans currently detained in Iran are Baquer and Siamak Namazi, a father and son who both have long and distinguished résumés. Baquer, who is 83 years old and suffers from a variety of life-threatening conditions, was a high-ranking official at UNICEF. Siamak, who has been held for nearly five years, is a successful businessman who holds degrees from Tufts and Rutgers. Both men were convicted — without evidence — on espionage charges in 2016.

Morad Tahbaz is a dual national of the United Kingdom and the United States who also holds Iranian citizenship. Tahbaz, who is in need of urgent medical attention, is part of a group of environmentalists who were arrested in late 2017 on specious charges that they were spying on sensitive military sites using rudimentary wildlife cameras.

The Trump administration has succeeded in winning the freedom of two hostages since late last year, yet it has made no discernible progress on the Namazis or Tahbaz. It is hard to escape the conclusion that those in charge don’t regard the current hostages as worthy of the same level of intervention as those who have already been freed.

In theory, Iran treats dual nationals like its own citizens — meaning that it regards them as people it can abuse as it sees fit. At the same time, though, Iranian officials have long used the foreign citizenship of dual-national hostages as a convenient pretext to extract concessions from other countries.

Iran’s leaders know that the U.S. government, in particular, has a long history of doing whatever is in its power to win the freedom of U.S. citizens unjustly detained abroad. It’s time for the Trump administration to live up to that standard in the case of these three hostages.

Recently, the State Department released a four-minute video about Tahbaz that highlights the important work he was doing for the environment in Iran. It is narrated by Brian Hook, Trump’s Iran envoy, and who is a vocal proponent of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran.

Regardless of Hook’s intentions, this display will likely raise the cost of Tahbaz’s release, which is precisely why hostage diplomacy is best done out of the public eye.

Iran’s government continues to state its preparedness to trade for all Americans. This has been Tehran’s public stance for more than year, which would indicate they want to clear their shelf of hostages. It could be that they have come to the conclusion that the entire endeavor is suffering from diminishing returns.

Trump administration officials have routinely dismissed these offers as insincere. They tell the relatives of Americans being held that such public proclamations are merely Iranian propaganda designed to hurt the families even more.

Yet I worry that Morad Tahbaz, Baqer Namazi and Siamak Namazi are being left behind.

I’d like nothing more than to be proven wrong. Hook, who acknowledges that he is not engaged in any direct diplomacy with Iran, could accomplish that by negotiating the freedom of these three Americans without delay or excuse.

Read more:

Jason Rezaian: The pandemic might hold the key to freedom for an American hostage in Iran

The Post’s View: Putin takes an American hostage. Trump seems fine with that.

Jason Rezaian: Iran frees one American hostage, but others cannot be forgotten

Jackson Diehl: How Trump’s failed ‘maximum pressure’ tactics could inspire a pre-election provocation

Charles Lane: What can recent history teach us about the 2020 presidential election?