For this American family, the Iran nuclear talks are personal

Emad Shargi’s daughter says her dad has always been stoic during his ordeal as an American citizen unjustly held in an Iranian prison. But recently, she heard something different.

“Whenever I tell him, ‘Oh, I wish you were here, I wish we could do this together, like when I cook something and I wish he could taste it, he always says, ‘Whatever will happen will happen, everything will be fine … don’t worry about me’,” Ariana Shargi said.

But this time, he told Ariana he had been thinking about Thanksgiving, telling her he hoped with “all of his heart” that the family could all be together in their DC area home, how he could make them a turkey. “He doesn’t really usually talk like that, like, wishing for things,” Ariana said of her father who Iran has detained since 2018. But this time, “I think I heard him, like, his voice — crack.”

The 56-year-old businessman is one of several Americans unjustly imprisoned by Iran or forbidden from leaving the country — US citizens whose fates have become bound up with ongoing tensions between the US and Iran, and whose fates may take another turn as international nuclear talks in Vienna appear to be foundering.

A ‘very simple reason’

The Biden administration has been adamant that Emad Shargi’s case, along with those of others being held by Tehran, be kept separate from negotiations meant to bring both the US and Iran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. That pact gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

As talks resumed after a six-month pause with a new Iranian team appointed by the country’s recently elected conservative government, US officials continued to insist that American hostages and the nuclear talks be kept separate.

“It’s still the case for one very simple reason,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “We have gone to Vienna to test the proposition as to whether we can achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA. The very fact that we would like to see this happen, but we are not sure if it can happen, suggests to us very strongly that the fates of these detained Americans should not be tied to an uncertain proposition.”

“Even as we continue to see to it — continue to test whether we can affect a mutual return to compliance, we are working nonstop to see to it that these Americans can be reunited with their families, in some cases after years and years of separation,” Price added.

At least 16 other dual nationals, like Emad Shargi, and one foreign national were known to be held in Iran (either imprisoned or under house arrest and prohibited from leaving the country) as of August 2021, according to research by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

The detained US citizens — Shargi, Baquer and Siamak Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz — are among at least 66 total publicly known current cases of Americans either held hostage by non-state actors or wrongfully held abroad by foreign governments across 16 countries, Margaux Ewen, the executive director of the James Foley Foundation, told CNN.

The number of cases not publicly known is believed to be much higher, she added.

Groups like hers and advocates for hostages are concerned that as the nuclear negotiations slowed after six rounds of talks and now might run aground again driving frustration with Iran, the very real human stories of Americans held hostage like Emad Shargi could get lost.

As the talks in Vienna appear unlikely to make immediate progress, these advocates say the Biden administration should make the hostages a higher priority.

“First and foremost, they need to put people at the front of the discussion,” said Sarah Levinson Moriarty, whose father Robert disappeared in Iran in 2007 and is believed to have died in Iranian custody.

“We have seen over and over again that our Americans will not come home unless they are at the beginning of any negotiations,” she said. “It needs to be a precondition to any deal, and I believe that this administration has a hard time doing that, but it’s what they need to do if they truly care about bringing our Americans home — and there are long suffering Americans in Iran that need to be brought home.”

Moriarty told CNN that her family hopes that US officials will also seek the return of her father’s remains.

“We do understand and we’ve accepted that he passed away, but we cannot have closure until the Iranians give us something,” she said.

“My family, we haven’t had any sort of funeral or memorial for my father yet,” she added. “He’s of Jewish heritage. We can’t sit shiva for him as would be the tradition. We have nothing.”

Support

The Shargi women — his daughters Ariana and Hannah and his wife Bahareh — worry about Emad’s health, but recently, he has been given more access to the communal phone in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and has been able to call “maybe every other day” for 10 minutes, Bahareh says. “I’ve been lucky enough to know him for 33 years. He’s a person that at the worst, worst times ever, he still tries to sound good and right now he really, he tries to sound good for us.”

The Shargis have weekly calls with administration officials who work on hostage issues, including the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens and his team. There have also been occasional calls with the US Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley. The meetings “are very supportive,” Bahareh says, describing the conversations as “broad.”

“They usually want to hear about how am I, how often he’s called, how he feels, how we’re doing, if they can do anything for us,” she says.

“Obviously they can’t share a lot with us,” Ariana says. “It’s good to have the support, but obviously, until my dad is back home, it’s hard.”

Ewen, of the James Foley Foundation, said the administration “should be making the release of all the Americans who are wrongfully detained by the Iranian government a priority. That should not take a backseat to other policy considerations here, given that two of these Americans have been held across several administrations,” Ewen told CNN. “It really needs to be at the top of the agenda.”

‘It’s a big world’

Ewen told CNN that she believes the US government and any other third-party intermediaries need to be shrewd about how they get detainees back and ensure there is accountability for wrongfully detaining Americans.

Price told reporters last week that when nuclear talks were stalled, the US remained in regular contact about the issue of American detainees with its allies, many of which also have citizens arbitrarily or wrongfully detained by Iran. “We have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans overseas. And of course, that includes Americans who are unjustly held, as is the case in Iran,” he said.

Babak Namazi, whose father Baquer and brother Siamak are being held in Iran, was not particularly hopeful as talks restarted in Vienna, particularly because there had been so little US communication with Iranian officials since hardline President Ebrahim Raisi took over.

“With the six rounds going back-to-back almost it felt, and each time there was progress being made, we were told that progress has also been made on the hostages,” he said. “I was much more hopeful in the previous rounds. Now, I don’t know what to expect.”

Bahareh just wishes the Iranian government would approach her husband’s case in a humanitarian way. “Just look at him as a human being and nothing else, as somebody who has a wife, somebody who has children, somebody who has two old parents that are basically looking at the door waiting for him to come back,” she says.

“I realize it’s a big world. There are big talks going on. But at the end of the day, all I care about is my little family that consists of Emad and the two girls. We have been torn apart for the past four years, for no reason at all. Emad is an innocent American man and we just want him back home.”

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