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Delicate Diplomacy Over U.S. Citizens Detained In Iran


President Trump's administration says it's trying harder to bring home American citizens detained in Iran. Iran seems to be hinting that it wants another prisoner swap, as the Obama administration once negotiated.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the delicate diplomacy.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Babak Namazi says he wakes up every day wondering what more he can do to help his brother and his father get out of Iran's notorious Evin Prison.

He says too many milestones have gone by for his father, Baquer Namazi, a former U.N. official who's been in jail for over a year.

BABAK NAMAZI: He spent, horrifically, his 80th birthday in jail. He spent last week, the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents, in jail.

KELEMEN: Then there's Babak's brother, Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, who spent much of his two years in jail in solitary confinement.

The Namazi family expected his release during a prisoner swap that the Obama administration orchestrated just as the nuclear deal was going into force in January of 2016.

NAMAZI: We were literally shocked that Siamak's not included in the deal.

KELEMEN: Babak Namazi spoke to reporters yesterday before heading to Capitol Hill for a hearing on his family's case and on the other Americans being held by Iran. He says he's been encouraged by his meetings with Trump administration officials, recalling one recent meeting.

NAMAZI: I left that meeting very confident that the case of my family has become a top priority for the Trump administration.

KELEMEN: Last week, the White House put out a statement warning Iran of, quote, "new and serious consequences" if the Namazis and other Americans being held in Iran are not released. For their part, the Iranians are hinting they might be interested in a deal. Namazi family lawyer Jared Genser points to recent Iranian news reports that mention the names of several Iranian citizens in jail in the U.S. for sanctions violations.

JARED GENSER: This appears to us to be a clear signal the Iranians want to engage in a discussion of a potential political prisoner exchange. And we would strongly encourage the Trump administration to engage directly with the government of Iran on that basis.

KELEMEN: State Department officials will only say they're working hard to get Americans home and that President Trump told Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this year to make these cases a priority. The Namazi family and lawyer are not the only ones speaking out now. Doug Levinson hasn't seen his father for a decade.


DOUG LEVINSON: Bob Levinson has been left behind by the U.S. government time after time after time, and we cannot let that happen again.

KELEMEN: Levinson is a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran more than 10 years ago. Iran promised to find him, and his son, Doug, wants the Trump administration to hold Iran's feet to the fire. He told a House hearing that he was pleased to see the White House threaten more sanctions.


LEVINSON: That is some of the strongest language that we've heard in the past 10 years. It's a great first step. And we're looking for more.

KELEMEN: Florida Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who chaired the hearing Tuesday, has some ideas.

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: We need to see additional pressure and additional sanctions, specifically against the Iranian individuals and entities responsible for detaining those family members, for taking hostages as a matter of policy and for committing increasingly gross human rights abuses.

KELEMEN: She's co-sponsoring a House resolution, calling on Iran to provide information about Levinson and to release the Namazis and two other Americans currently being held there. She expects that resolution to pass overwhelmingly.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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