Will Biden Pay Up for Hostages Held by Iran? 

Ayatollahs are teasing him with hopes of a release of three Yanks from their dungeons in Tehran.

AP/Patrick Semansky
A mural at Washington, D.C., depicts American hostages and wrongful detainees who are being held abroad, July 20, 2022. At left is Siamak Namazi, who has been in captivity in Iran since 2015. At right is Jose Angel Pereira, who has been imprisoned in Venezuela since 2017. AP/Patrick Semansky

Tehran, hoping for an American payoff, is teasing a release from its dungeons of three American hostages. Will President Biden pay up while leaving other hostages behind? Will the Iranian regime once again profit from its cruel hostage-taking game?

The Islamic Republic said a deal involving Americans imprisoned in Iran on trumped-up charges is close to completion — leading to a quick Washington denial. Yet, the administration’s top hostage negotiator, Roger Carstens, has traveled to Qatar, a country with good relations with Washington and Terhran, indicating a deal could come soon. 

“On our part everything is ready, while the U.S. is currently working on the final technical coordination,” the Islamic Republic’s foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, said over the weekend. “Unfortunately,” a National Security Council statement countered, “Iranian officials will not hesitate to make things up.”

“The latest cruel claim will cause more heartache for the families of Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz,” the NSC’s statement added.

Mr. Namazi, sentenced in 2016 to a 10-year prison term on bogus espionage charges, gave a heart-wrenching interview last week to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, calling on Mr. Biden to “bring us home.” It wasn’t clear whether the authorities at the notorious Evin prison, where he is held, facilitated the interview, which created a stir in Washington.   

Separately, Iranian news outlets reported over the weekend that Washington agreed to release frozen Iranian funds held in Iraqi banks as part of American sanctions against the regime. A much larger sum, widely estimated at $7 billion, is held in Korean banks. Some or all of it could be used as ransom for the release of the American hostages. 

“A deal with Iran to get hostages out is necessary, but that deal doesn’t have to involve release of funds,” a former American hostage who was held at Evin, Xiyue Wang, told the Sun. As a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, Mr. Wang traveled to do field research in Iran, where he was arrested in 2016 on espionage charges. 

“Thousands of Iranian Americans live permanently in Iran,” Mr. Wang says. “If you give money today, how are you going to prevent further hostage-taking?” He noted that in his own release in 2019, “no money changed hands.” 

Mr. Wang added that the NSC statement, and a similar one from the Department of State, referred to the long-held three hostages but ignored other men held in Iran, indicating that they could be left behind. 

One such person, a 59-year-old Iranian-American, Shahab Dalili, has been imprisoned since traveling to Tehran for his father’s funeral in 2016. Another, a permanent California resident who has a dual German-Iranian citizenship, Jamshid “Jimmy” Sharmahd, is facing the death penalty. 

In 2009, a hitman who had been hired by Iran got cold feet and admitted to police at Glendora, California, that he was part of a plot to assassinate Mr. Sharmahd there. Claiming that Mr. Sharmahd had attempted to bomb a target in Iran, regime operatives then kidnapped the American resident when he was on a business trip to Dubai in 2020. In February he was sentenced to death on charges of “corruption on earth.” 

Tehran is now attempting to create a “feeding frenzy” for the release of three Americans, a Washington-based lawyer who has been involved in Iranian hostage negotiations, Jason Poblete, tells the Sun. Yet, he says, “if there is an agreement and just one U.S. hostage is left behind, it will be a failure.”

Mr. Poblete says that Mr. Namazi will give more interviews, byline the CNN one, in order to convince the Biden administration to do more for his release. Yet, he said, the Iranians may well be facilitating such interviews to lean on Mr. Biden to release funds. 

The regime also may hope to keep some imprisoned Amricans behind for future concessions. They could even execute Mr. Sharmahd, and thus be able to tell domestic supporters they made no concessions to the Great Satan. “If a deal is made and everybody doesn’t come out, it’s a bad deal,” Mr. Poblete says. “And even if everyone gets out and there are no conditions” for preventing future hostage taking, “it’s still a bad deal.”

Mr. Namazi’s long imprisonment, which includes a recent hunger strike, is “heart wrenching,” a former White House official who dealt with Iran, Richard Goldberg, says. Yet, he adds, “paying a $7 billion ransom will only lead to more hostage-taking of American citizens — and not just by Iran.”

Washington “should not be using frozen funds tied to terrorism to provide budget support to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” Mr. Goldberg, now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says. “Rather, the United States should put maximum pressure on Iran until all U.S. hostages are released.”

As it is, however, the Biden administration is “actively supporting the regime rather than the Iranian people,” Mr. Wang says. “Because of our policies, we are constantly being extorted by Iran.”  

Correction: Carstens is the last name of the administration’s top hostage negotiator. The name was misspelled in an earlier version.


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