When President Trump took office in 2017, the families of four U.S. citizens being held prisoner in Iran saw his unorthodox leadership style and brawny rhetoric as heralding a promising opportunity to win the freedom of their loved ones.
Trump, however, has not been able to secure the release of any of the six Americans now believed to be in Iranian custody, two of whom were arrested after his election. Some relatives and lawyers of those being held say that their patience is wearing thin.
“As a candidate Trump underscored that he would not let Americans languish unjustly in jails abroad. I was very excited about that promise,” said Babak Namazi, whose brother and father, both dual citizens, were arrested and imprisoned while visiting Iran about four years ago. “Now I’m disappointed that neither Trump or myself [has] been successful.”
Agreeing with that sentiment is Mark Zaid, a lawyer representing the family of Michael White, a Navy veteran from San Diego arrested in July 2018 and eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. White is accused of insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and disclosing private information by posting a photo on Instagram of an Iranian woman he was visiting.
“We have no indication as to how the political arm of the U.S. is engaged or interested to get White and other people out,” Zaid said in an interview. “We are disappointed that it doesn’t get the level of attention that we would hope.”
In recent years, Iranian authorities have been increasingly targeting citizens from Western countries, using them as pawns for future prisoner swap negotiations, experts say. Since 2017, authorities have imprisoned at least 11 foreign nationals with British, Canadian, French, American and Australian citizenship, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
For several months now, Tehran has suggested that it is open to prisoner swap negotiations. But Trump administration officials have not indicated whether the U.S. is engaged in either direct or indirect negotiations with Iranian officials.
Some analysts say that the approach toward American prisoners in Iran appears to stand in contrast to his personal efforts to free Americans in other authoritarian-run nations, whose leaders he has sought to befriend.
Since Trump took office, at least 12 Americans held in places such as North Korea, Egypt and Turkey have been freed. In February, Trump repeated the importance of winning freedom for Americans held overseas and claimed that he’s won the release of 20 Americans who have been held captive by militant groups and foreign governments.
Some analysts question whether Trump and his aides are exerting selective attention to the issue.
“This is a paradox for Trump because he championed the issue but the situation for families of Americans held in Iran has gotten a lot worse,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists and author of “We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom.”
And some wonder whether Trump’s focus on benefiting domestically from securing releases from certain countries could embolden other foreign governments to use American prisoners to extract concessions and lead to questionable results.
They point to the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old who had been held captive in North Korea until Trump approved an operation in 2017 that sent a diplomat and two doctors to Pyongyang and brought him home unconscious. He died just days after being reunited with his family.
Trump also made personal appeals to win the 2017 release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American aid worker who had been jailed in Cairo for three years, and the Rev. Andrew Brunson, an American Christian preacher who had been held in Turkey on terrorism-related charges for nearly two years before being freed in 2018.
As well, personal appeals have extended to democratic nations, where, in the case of rapper A$AP Rocky, the president sought to bend the will of the Swedish judicial process.
During a July phone call with Gordon D. Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, Trump discussed the situation of A$AP Rocky, who, at the time, was behind bars on charges of assault, according to a written statement made by State Department official David Holmes to a congressional impeachment panel Friday.
In the phone call that Holmes overheard, he said Sondland allegedly told Trump that A$AP Rocky “should have pled guilty,” so that Trump could then “play the racism card” once the rapper was sentenced. Sondland then advised Trump that although the rapper wasn’t immediately released, he could still tell reality TV star Kim Kardashian — who had lobbied Trump on the rapper’s behalf — that he had tried. A$AP Rocky was eventually set free in August after a month behind bars.
Iran has been a different matter for the Obama and Trump administrations. Babak Namazi said he initially stayed quiet about his father and brother at the suggestion of State Department officials during the Obama administration who said it would improve chances of securing their release. Since then, Namazi has changed course and has made his family’s plight public.
Namazi’s brother, Siamak, was the head of an oil and gas company in the United Arab Emirates. He was arrested in Tehran in October 2015 by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. When their then-80-year-old father, Baquer, went to Iran in February 2016 to try to secure Siamak Namazi’s release, authorities arrested him as well.
For Namazi, keeping the momentum going has been challenging. During the last prisoner swap in January 2016 — under the Obama administration — his brother was rumored to be among those who would be freed. But in the end, Siamak Namazi was not one of four Iranian American dual nationals to be let go in exchange for the release of seven Iranians.
Not long after, Iranian authorities convicted Namazi’s father and brother of espionage and sentenced them to 10 years each. When the news reached Trump just days before he won the election, he tweeted: “Iran has done it again.... This doesn’t happen if I’m president!”
That promise renewed hope not only for the Namazi family but for the families of other American prisoners.
More than three years later, Namazi is still separated from his 48-year-old brother and ailing 83-year-old father.
“I literally fear the life is seeping out of my father. Continuing to restrict and hold a frail old man serves no one’s interest. Never in my worst nightmare did I think I’d be marking their fourth year behind bars,” Namazi said.
Besides the Namazis and White, Americans held in Iran are Xiyue Wang, a Chinese American student at Princeton; Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist; and, according to American authorities, Robert Levinson, a 71-year-old former FBI agent.
Wang was conducting research for his thesis when he was arrested in 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Tahbaz was imprisoned January 2018 on espionage charges. He was a board member of the Persian Heritage Wildlife Foundation and was among at least nine environmentalists who were Iranian citizens from the charity who were taken into custody.
Levinson’s location is unknown. He went missing in 2007. A proof of life video was received by the family in 2010.
Under the Obama administration, families of prisoners held overseas said at times they felt ignored and complained of poor communication among U.S. government agencies. In an effort to address those concerns, President Obama enacted a series of reforms in 2015 that changed how the U.S. government handled situations concerning U.S. citizens held abroad.
Trump has not changed these policies. But he’s indicated that securing the freedom of Americans held prisoner overseas is a top priority.
Complicating matters are Trump’s hawkish policies toward Iran, which include his “maximum pressure” campaign involving punitive economic sanctions. As a result, the U.S. has less leverage to bring Americans home, according to some experts.
“With the deterioration in the relationship, I think it’s very hard for Iranians to engage. All of the ideas to get people released begin on the margin of talks on something else and now we don’t have that something else to begin a conversation,” said James O’Brien, who served as the first special presidential envoy for hostage affairs during the Obama administration.
Levinson’s son Dan believes Trump’s crackdown on Iran is the right way forward.
“We didn’t think Obama put enough pressure on Iran. Tougher pressure will work because we think it’s the only way Iran will respond,” he said, pointing to the fact that for the first time since his father’s disappearance more than 12 years ago, Iran acknowledged in a filing to the United Nations in November that it has an an open Revolutionary Court case involving Levinson.
During a news conference in October, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in response to a question from The Times that negotiations with the U.S. over a prisoner swap had been attempted twice but stalled both times because of preconditions imposed by American officials.
“The proposal of prisoner swaps is on the table. We are ready to help the exchange of inmates,” Rouhani said.
While Trump and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo continue to call on the government of Iran to release Americans, the State Department declined to say what steps, if any, have been taken to secure their release. It said in an email: “We work with all willing interlocutors and leverage all possible diplomatic options to bring our detained citizens and hostages back to their loved ones.”
In June, when Iran released Lebanese businessman and permanent U.S. resident Nizar Zakka, Rouhani was quickly contradicted when he said it was in part a good faith gesture to the United States. A spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Keyvan Khosravi, said Zakka was actually released because of a request by Lebanese President Michel Aoun.
In October, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said it sent the United Nations a list of individuals that it would want freed in a prisoner swap. As of Sept. 21, there were 30 Iranian citizens in U.S. federal custody, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
For Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, the emotional toll of being separated from her husband has been compounded by the fact that she’s raising the couple’s 6-year-old son alone while working full time as a contract manager for a pharmaceutical company.
“I’m a single mom in a traumatic situation every day,” she said.
Sometimes when she’s on the computer, she catches herself unconsciously typing “Iran” into Google to find new or useful information about her husband’s situation.
“I’m like a machine” she said. “It’s ridiculous because my mind is blank at the time, it’s automatic. I press enter and then I remember I’m supposed to search for something else.”
Wang places the onus of responsibility on the Trump administration.
“The U.S. needs to react and respond to this situation and bring them back because they haven’t done enough,” she said. “The problem is I don’t know what the government is doing and I’m getting frustrated every day.”
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Etehad from Los Angeles.