On Saturday, April 10, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, First Deputy and spokesman of the Iranian Judiciary, said he has heard “here and there” about the possibility that Iran will exchange two Iranian-American prisoners, Siamak and Mohammad Baquer Namazi, for Iranian prisoners held in the US. One prisoner that Iran hopes to free is Ahmad Sheikhzadeh, a consultant to Iran's mission to the United Nations. But, Mohseni-Ejei said, “the judiciary has not been officially informed about it.”
The hardline Students News Agency confirmed that secret negotiations for a prisoner exchange were taking place and expressed concern that Iranian officials might sell the Namazis too cheaply.
Siamak Namazi is the head of strategic planning for Crescent Petroleum in the United Arab Emirates. He was arrested in Tehran in October 2015 while visiting his family. His 80-year-old father, Baquer Namazi, was arrested on February 22 by Revolutionary Guards intelligence agents after he had travelled to Iran to visit his son. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Baquer Namazi had been the governor of Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan. He later worked for UNICEF until he retired in 1996.
No official charges against either father or son have been announced. Their lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaei, told IranWire that he has been refused access to their case files.
Ahmad Sheikhzadeh, the Iranian national who might be exchanged for the Namazis, was arrested in March and faces seven charges in the US including conspiracy to evade US sanctions and money laundering.
Hardline media in Iran have presented Sheikhzadeh’s arrest as an act of hostage taking. Speaking to the Fars News Agency on March 24, Mehdi Mohammadi, a member former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear negotiating team, said the US was holding Sheikhzadeh to secure the Namazis’ release. He characterized the Namazis as Iran’s “biggest intelligence catch” in the past decade. In the past few months the hardline paper Vatan has repeatedly made similar claims, referring to Siamak Namazi as the “kingfish” of a British-run network.
It appears that hardliners hope to pressure President Rouhani in such a way that it will become impossible for him to negotiate further with the US in the wake of last year’s nuclear deal.
Following the nuclear agreement – though not in connection with its terms – Iran released five Americans, four of whom had dual US-Iranian citizenship, in exchange for Iranians who were in US prisons for violating sanctions.
At the time, Iranian judiciary officials said Iran’s Supreme National Security Council had made the decision to exchange prisoners. The same body will likely decide the Namazis’ case.
Cutting Lines of Communication
Throughout nuclear negotiations, the Iranian government repeatedly denied that it was conducting other negotiations with the US on the sidelines. But subsequent statements by Iranian negotiators showed that for a year and a half, a team of experts under Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s supervision had been negotiating with US counterparts over the prisoners’ fate.
Hardliners may be pressuring Rouhani’s government over the Namazis’ case because they fear Rouhani and his administration will use such cases to sustain behind-the-scenes lines of communication with the US. The most recent prisoner exchange, along with the release of US sailors in January, demonstrates the importance lines of communication hold for diplomats in both countries.
At the same time, Iranian efforts to secure Sheikhzadeh’s release have led to a new opportunity to resolve the Namazis’ case. But if the case does end with the Namazis’ release, hardline media outlets’ big claims about the importance of Siamak and Baquer Namazi in Western espionage will be undermined. Hardliners have already invested a great deal in their own hostages.