Shargi, a longtime D.C. resident, was initially detained from April to December 2018. After eight months of brutal interrogations, confined to a cell for more than 23 hours each day, he was finally released, and in 2019 he was cleared of wrongdoing.
Out of prison for two years, Shargi wasn’t actually free, forced to stay in Iran because authorities never returned his passport. He spent most of his time alone at home, waiting for clearance to return to Washington, where his wife, Bahareh Amidi Shargi, had reunited with the couple’s two daughters.
Then, without warning, on Nov. 30, Shargi was summoned to court and told he had been convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison. After being taken into custody on Dec. 6, he was incommunicado until he called his wife on Feb. 13.
He told her that he was back in Evin Prison’s ward 2A, the most isolated section of the notorious penitentiary, which is under the control of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s a place I know all too well. That’s where I was held, isolated from the world, for the entire 544 days of my detention.
When I spoke with Amidi Shargi, she described scenes nearly identical to the ones my wife and I experienced, from an ambush-style raid on their home in Tehran by more than a dozen masked plainclothes security agents, which ended with their electronic devices and identification documents confiscated and her husband hauled off to Evin, to periodic visits permitted while he was in custody in the very same cold room with green vinyl-covered chairs where my wife and I would sporadically meet years earlier.
The similarities don’t end there.
Like me, Emad Shargi is a dual U.S. and Iranian national. Although I was born in California and he in Tehran, we are among the thousands of Iranians in the diaspora who in recent years, for reasons personal and professional, decided to live in Iran.
In 2017, after building a life together in D.C. and then working in the United Arab Emirates for nearly a decade, the Shargis decided they were ready for a new adventure when both their daughters left for university. They chose to return to Iran, a country they had both left before adolescence.
At first, it was everything they hoped it would be.
“For both of us, it really felt like we were going back home. The image that comes to mind is that of running into the open arms of a mother,” Amidi Shargi told me.
Despite Iran’s repressive laws and reputation for human rights abuses, the Shargis’s decision to return to their homeland is not that rare. Following the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as president and the 2015 nuclear deal, an increasing number of dual-national Iranians have returned — and, in fact, have been encouraged to do so by some authorities, who covet the capital and international connections they bring with them.
“We were the biggest advocates of Iran to our friends abroad. We convinced European and American friends to visit, and everyone wondered why they hadn’t come sooner. It’s inexpensive, the people are warm and welcoming, and there is so much culture and history there,” she described.
Unfortunately, individuals who would like to see an Iran that is more connected with the rest of the world have become the most common targets of the forces within the Islamic republic vehemently opposed to society becoming more open.
“All that trust, all that hope, all those feelings about my motherland were destroyed. It was a total violation,” Amidi Shargi told me.
In every case, hostages are relentlessly interrogated for months without legal counsel and put through sham trials. After we are denied consular access because Iran refuses to acknowledge its citizens’ dual nationalities, our only hope is to be freed by negotiated settlement between Iran and the other nation we hold citizenship in. The Iranian regime must not be allowed to benefit from citizens in the diaspora returning while also using them as bargaining chips and denying them due process.
The most striking similarity between Shargi’s current detention and my own is that I, too, was taken at a moment when engagement between the United States and Iran seemed like it might result in some thawing in relations.
In recent days, the Biden administration signaled it would be willing to return to talks with Iran over its nuclear program.
But it also just signed on to a declaration condemning arbitrary detentions to “obtain leverage in state-to-state relations,” the diplomatic term for state hostage-taking. In a Sunday interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said, ”We intend to very directly communicate with the Iranians about the complete and utter outrage, the humanitarian catastrophe that is the unjust, unlawful detention of American citizens in Iran.”
So it’s time for Iran’s negotiators to make a choice right now. They can engage in comprehensive negotiations to settle issues between their longtime adversary, the United States, or they can continue justifying and participating in their government’s hostage-taking racket. But they can no longer have it both ways.