By: Susan Crabtree
Nizar Zakka knows exactly what it’s like to be left behind in a U.S. hostage deal with Iran in which billions of dollars were exchanged.
In 2016, Zakka and his family believed he would be included in a hostage deal negotiated by the Obama administration in which the U.S. government provided $1.7 billion in assets to Tehran, including $400 million paid in cash and delivered to the Iranian government by a U.S. military plane.
The agreement was timed to ensure the release of four U.S. hostages as the nuclear agreement between the U.S. and Iran and four other world powers was set to take effect.
Among those freed was Jason Rezaion, a Washington Post reporter whom an Iranian court convicted on bogus spying charges in 2015. Washington journalists, who had launched a vocal campaign to pressure the Obama White House for Rezaion’s safe return, celebrated their colleague’s freedom. But Republican lawmakers and other critics blamed Obama for giving Tehran and other countries incentive for more hostage-taking, and some human rights advocates faulted the deal for failing to bring all Americans held in Iran home.
Now those same critics argue it’s “déjà vu all over again” with the latest hostage deal involving nearly three times the amount of unfrozen assets the U.S. government agreed to release seven years ago in the last prisoner swap with Iran.
Five Americans are being freed from detention in Iran in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds in South Korea and elsewhere, and the release of several jailed Iranians.
Zakka, then a Lebanese citizen and permanent legal resident of the United States, and his family were crestfallen. Three more years passed before Zakka was eventually released in a deal spearheaded by the Lebanese government.
Zakka’s case stands out because he wasn’t just on an undisclosed business trip or visiting relatives when he was arrested and jailed in Iran. Instead, Zakka had lived in the United States since age 16, went to college in the U.S., and became an Internet freedom advocate with his own nonprofit advocacy organization. He was invited by the Iranian government to speak at a government-sponsored technology conference in Tehran in the fall of 2015 when he was arrested in Tehran on his way to the airport to return to the U.S.
And in the initial months after his detention, amid final negotiations of the Iranian deal, the Obama administration initially would not publicly acknowledge Zakka’s arrest and imprisonment even though they were well aware of it.
At the time, Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, and his father, Baquer Namazi, an 81-year-old former United Nations official who served as governor of an Iranian province under the U.S.-backed shah, were also left behind. At the time, some human rights advocates speculated that the Obama administration was trying to preserve its Iran nuclear deal and were worried that publicly acknowledging the arrests of Zakka and the Namazis could jeopardize it. President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions five months into his presidency.
Now the Namazis are finally set to be released, along with three unnamed others. But at least one American detained in Iran, and another U.S. national who had lived legally in the U.S. for more than 20 years, are being left behind.
Zakka is a passionate advocate for Shahab Dalili, 60, an American hostage excluded from the current hostage deal. They shared a cell at Evin prison, along with Xiyue Wang, another American hostage detained for several years before Iran released him in 2019. The trio of Americans – Zakka, Wang, and Dalili – formed a tight bond, helping each other survive the harsh conditions and numerous mental and physical forms of torture handed down by their Iranian guards in Evin prison. After returning to the United States, Zakka founded Hostage Aid Worldwide to help free other wrongfully detained Americans.
Dalili, an Iranian shipping captain who immigrated to the United States after retiring, has been left out of the hostage deal the Biden administration released and announced on Aug. 10. Jamshid Sharmahd, a German journalist and software engineer who lived legally and paid taxes in the U.S. for more than 20 years, also is not part of the hostage deal. Sharmahd was nabbed by Iranian authorities while he was visiting Dubai there years ago.
Jason Poblete, a lawyer for both the Dalili and Sharmahd families, says the Iranian regime tried to assassinate Jamshid Sharmahd in California in 2009, and the FBI helped foil the plot.
Their exclusion from the hostage deal is heartbreaking to the Dalili and Sharmahd families, who have been pleading with the U.S. government to help secure their loved ones’ release for several years.
“It’s too much money – it’s a shame to release all this money and not to include Shahab,” Zakka said in an interview while sitting outside the State Department to protest the agency’s failure to include Dalili in the deal. “He spent a year and a half with me in the same cell.”
Zakka says he no longer recognizes the United States, where he grew up and learned about what it’s like to live in a democracy where human lives are deeply valued and the government makes every effort to ensure that no one is left behind in enemy territory.
“He has to get out – it’s so unfair,” Zakka added. “[The State Department] forgot about American values – that you don’t leave anyone behind. They are just playing games now.”
Xiyue Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen and graduate student at Princeton University who spent three years at Evin prison, is also pushing strongly for the State Department to demand Dalili’s inclusion in the current deal. (As a first step in the agreement, Iran last week allowed four detained U.S. citizens to move into house arrest from Evin prison while a fifth American was already under home confinement.)
Since the State Department announced the hostage deal, Wang has been angrily tweeting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is caving to Iranian pressure not to include Dalili in any deal.
“@SecBlinken lying blatantly again!” Wang tweeted Tuesday, responding to a State Department tweet of Blinken stating that he has “no higher priority than looking out for the security and well-being of Americans around the world.”
“His higher priority is to lift sanctions on Iran & give blocked assets back to Iran,” Wang fumed. “He cares nothing about the safety of Americans because by paying a $6 billion ransom to Tehran, he’s putting more Americans at risk of Iran’s hostage taking!”
Last Friday, Dalili’s son, Darian, launched a joint hunger strike with his father, now in its seventh day, to raise awareness about his exclusion from the hostage deal. Darian also spent the weekend standing outside the White House protesting but switched to the State Department on Tuesday, where reporters were starting to press the agency for answers about his father’s case.
“If you release all that money to Iran and you haven’t brought everyone back, whomever you’re leaving behind, they’re as good as dead,” Darian Dalili told RealClearPolitics in an interview.
Darian and his father’s supporters were particularly upset when Blinken was questioned by reporters last week about the existence of any U.S. permanent residents detained in Iran, and he denied knowing of any. Shahab Dalili is a U.S. permanent legal resident.
“Blinken is either brazenly lying or is completely incompetent at his job,” Wang tweeted.
They are also questioning why the State Department has yet to officially determine whether Dalili was “wrongfully detained” by Iran, a designation that would give his case priority in any State Department negotiation for hostage releases. The agency has yet to determine that “wrongfully detained” status for Dalili, even though he has spent seven years in Iranian custody and other American hostages set for release were granted the designation in just a few months.
Darian Dalili said he and other family members have sent many emails to the State Department pleading with officials to let him know if they can help hasten the designation for their father.
“If there is any roadblock to this designation, please tell us what it is,” he said. “Nobody ever said anything. Nobody ever responded.”
A State Department spokesperson referred RCP to statements Verdant Patel, the State Department’s deputy press secretary, made on Monday. Pressed by reporters for answers, Patel didn’t provide a clear reason for why Dalili did not have the status and was not part of the deal.
Under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery Act, which provided new funds and guidelines for U.S. efforts to free Americans held overseas, U.S. permanent residents are granted the same rights as U.S. citizens when the State Department is negotiating with other countries for their release. Both green card holders and citizens equally qualify for “wrongfully detained” status.
After Darian began his hunger strike and he and his supporters began tweeting about his father’s exclusion from the hostage deal, he said that Abram Paley, the acting special U.S. envoy to Iran, called him. But, Dalili said, Paley failed to offer any hope that they would work to have his father included in the deal because Iran was not cooperating, and citing his status as a legal permanent U.S. resident, not a full citizen, as an excuse.
“I told him, very straightforwardly, ‘It sounds to me like Iran makes a demand, and you give up in order to move on,’” Darian said. “He used the words, ‘move forward,’ and I said, ‘I label it you giving in to Iran’s demands.’”
While advocates for the Namazis and the other three Americans in the process of being freed from detention in Iran are encouraged and waiting nervously for their safe return, other human rights advocates are deeply concerned about the deal’s impact on Americans held hostage in other countries, including in China, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and elsewhere.