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Who are the U.S. citizens being held in Iran?

European and Iranian diplomats in Vienna during a meeting of the joint commission on negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal on Dec. 9. (E.U. delegation in Vienna/AFP/Getty Images)
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Negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran are “in the final stretch,” the United States said this week. The Biden administration has urged Tehran to roll back its recent nuclear advances and make “tough political decisions” that would allow both countries to return to the 2015 pact.

But even as the two sides potentially prepare to thrash out everything from U.S. sanctions to Iran’s uranium enrichment, at least one key issue has been left off the nuclear negotiating table: the fate of four U.S. citizens being held in Iran.

The United States insists that talks to secure the release of the four Americans are being pursued independently from the nuclear negotiations.

“We are negotiating on the release of the detainees separately from the JCPOA,” or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, a senior State Department official said in a briefing with reporters Monday.

“But as we’ve said, it is very hard for us to imagine a return to the JCPOA while four innocent Americans are behind bars or are detained in Iran,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the State Department.

Here are the four U.S. citizens who are in prison in Iran or barred from leaving the country.

Siamak Namazi

Siamak Namazi, 50, is an Iranian American businessman who was living in Dubai when he was arrested while visiting relatives in Iran in 2015. An Iranian court sentenced Namazi to 10 years in prison on charges of collaborating with a hostile foreign government.

The United Nations ruled that Namazi was not granted a fair trial. He is being held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where family members say his health has deteriorated after spending time in solitary confinement.

Namazi was born in Iran to a prominent family that left their home country for the United States soon after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Namazi became a U.S. citizen in 1993 and, after graduating from Tufts University, returned to Iran for compulsory military service. He also later served as a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Namazi was employed as the head of strategic planning at Crescent Petroleum, an upstream oil and gas company operating in the Middle East, at the time of his arrest.

Baquer Namazi

Baquer Namazi, 85, is the father of Siamak Namazi and also a dual Iranian American citizen. He was arrested by Iranian authorities when he traveled there in early 2016 to visit his son in prison. A Tehran court sentenced Baquer to 10 years in prison on the same day as Siamak and for the same alleged crime of collaborating with a hostile foreign government.

Baquer Namazi, who suffers from a heart condition and other health issues, was released on temporary medical furlough in 2018. Iran’s judiciary later commuted his sentence in 2020 but has refused to renew his passport or allow him to leave Iran. In October, he underwent surgery in Tehran to clear what his U.S.-based lawyer said was a “life-threatening blockage in the arteries to his brain.”

Namazi worked as a civil servant under the Shah, who was overthrown in 1979, serving as the provincial governor of oil-rich Khuzestan. He left Iran for the United States and later spent more than a decade as a senior official with the U.N. Children’s Fund, or UNICEF. Before his arrest, he worked in relief and development through Hamyaran, the nongovernmental organization he established to support aid and community empowerment projects in Iran.

Morad Tahbaz

Morad Tahbaz, 66, is a conservationist and entrepreneur with U.S., British and Iranian citizenship. He was arrested in Iran in early 2018, along with eight other environmentalists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, where he served as chief executive.

An Iranian court sentenced Tahbaz in 2019 to 10 years in prison for military espionage — and upheld the sentence in 2020.

The wildlife foundation and its employees were involved in an ambitious project to monitor the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah, whose dwindling population now lives exclusively in Iran. As part of the effort, the conservationists used wildlife camera traps to snap images of the elusive cheetahs. Iranian authorities accused the scientists of using the wildlife project — including the foreign-manufactured cameras — to collect classified military information.

Tahbaz graduated from Columbia Business School in 1983. He is also a cancer survivor and has reportedly suffered ill health in prison.

“For 4 years the Iranian government has held Morad Tahbaz — a UK and US citizen — in Evin Prison,” Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said on Twitter last month. “Morad is a father, an environmentalist, and a cancer victim. Iran should release him … immediately.”

Emad Shargi

Emad Shargi, 56, was first detained in Iran in early 2018, about a year after he and his wife relocated to Tehran from the United States. Shargi, a dual Iranian American citizen, was held incommunicado for months but later released and cleared of what a Tehran court said were espionage and other national security charges.

Authorities, however, would not return Shargi’s U.S. passport, and in late 2020, the court informed him that he had, in fact, been sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying and “military intelligence gathering.” Iranian media reported that Shargi was subsequently detained at a checkpoint near the Iraqi border while attempting to flee the country. He is also being held in Evin Prison north of Tehran and has at times been able to call home, his wife, Bahareh, told NPR.

Shargi was born in Iran and left for the United States as a child. He graduated from the University of Maryland and George Washington University and later worked for an Abu Dhabi-based company that leases and sells private airplanes. Shargi and Bahareh, who married in San Francisco, decided to move back to Iran after their two daughters left for college, the New York Times reported. While in Iran, Shargi worked for Sarava, a technology venture capital firm.

Read more:

Leaked footage shows inmates abused at Iran’s Evin Prison, prompting rare official apology

Environmentalists filmed Iran’s vanishing cheetahs. Now they could be executed for spying.

West warns time is growing short for Iran nuclear deal, as talks pause again

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