“We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal,” said US President-elect Donald Trump when he announced his candidacy in June 2015. Trump was referring to the bestselling 1987 business book (which was ghostwritten by journalist Tony Schwartz) that helped him build his brand as a celebrity tycoon. Trump has long held that President Barack Obama is a bad negotiator. He famously called the president’s hard-won nuclear accord with Iran and five other countries “the worst deal ever negotiated.” 

Trump also highlighted Iran’s habit of detaining Americans throughout the negotiations and afterward, suggesting that Iran has taken Obama’s diplomatic stance for weakness. In October, he tweeted about the case of two Iranian-Americans, businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer, who were both sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran after being accused of working on behalf of the US government. “Well, Iran has done it again,” Trump wrote. “Taken two of our people and asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn't happen if I'm president!” 

“Well, Iran has done it again,” Trump tweeted. “Taken two of our people and asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn't happen if I'm president!"

Throughout the Obama administration, many Republicans have referred to US citizens in Iran jails as “hostages” and accused officials of negotiating “ransoms.” Back in January, Trump condemned the terms of a prisoner swap between the US and Iran that secured the release of four other Americans. “They’re getting seven people, so essentially they get $150bn plus seven, and we get four,” he said. “I’m happy they’re coming back, but I will tell you it’s a disgrace they’ve been there so long.”

But when Iranian authorities jail Iranian-Americans and other dual nationals can these prisoners be considered hostages? Under US law, hostage takers are defined as

"whoever, whether inside or outside the United States, seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure, or to continue to detain another person in order to compel a third person or a governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the person detained, or attempts or conspires to do so." 

When Iran detains foreign nationals, it treats them as criminals and jails them under the auspices of the Iranian judiciary. So the big question is whether Iran's legal norms are adequate, and whether Iran's judiciary is independent of its most poweful leaders, including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

 Lawyer Jason Poblete says Trump would do well to follow the example of Ronald Reagan

In February, a high-ranking former Iranian official who asked to remain anonymous told IranWire that Revolutionary Guards arrested Siamak Namazi because they believed Iranian-Americans can be used as bargaining chips with the US. Two of the former prisoners released in January, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari and Saeed Abidini, have also said that Iran used US detainees as “bargaining chips” and political tools in Iran’s negotiations with the US, though neither referred to themselves as “hostages.” But tweeting about the case of the Namazis, former prisoner Jason Rezaian said: “Once again Iran wraps its hostage taking in a judicial façade.” And the husband of jailed British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has referred to his wife as a hostage. 

 

The Scourge of Presidencies

No US president has mastered the art of the deal when it comes to prisoners, whether they are viewed as hostages or not. And hostage situations in Iran have threatened past presidencies. President Jimmy Carter arguably lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan because he failed to secure the release of American diplomats taken hostage by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s student supporters when they stormed the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. 

President Jimmy Carter arguably lost the 1980 presidential election because he failed to secure the release of American diplomats

Ronald Reagan’s administration, in turn, embroiled itself in the illegal Iran-Contra affairs while trying to make covert diplomatic inroads to Iranian officials through secret arms sales, with the aim of gaining the release of American hostages in Lebanon. The scandal consumed Reagan’s second term as president.

Trump claims he is a master negotiator. Time will tell.

One prominent critic of the Obama administration’s handling of incidents in which Iran detained Americans — and a Trump enthusiast —is Washington, D.C.-based lawyer Jason Poblete.

Unlike Trump, who once seemed to mix up the Iranian military Quds Force with the Kurds, Poblete has first-hand experience with the matter. For the past three months, he has represented Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and US resident who was sentenced in September to 10 years in prison, and given a $4.2 million fine, on undisclosed charges. 

Zakka, a technology expert, was arrested in September 2015 when he traveled to Iran to speak at a technology conference at the invitation of Vice President for Women’s Affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi.

Poblete represents Zakka’s case to those responsible for dealing with hostage situations involving Americans, including such US federal bodies as the State Department and Congress. He also raises Zakka’s case with non-governmental organizations and the United Nations.

“I think this was the first case where they have actually put a dollar figure, which they say is a fine, we say is a ransom, in order to secure a prisoner’s release,” Poblete says. “In my opinion, Nizar was lured to Iran. He was kidnapped and he is now being unlawfully detained.” Zakka, he says, has been subjected to a “kangaroo court” and is now in poor health. “We think his unconditional release should be the way out.”

The Zakka case, he says, fits into a long record of arbitrary detentions of foreign citizens in Iran that dates back to 1979. But whereas in 1979 taking Americans hostage was a way for Khomeini to secure legitimacy for his new regime, Poblete says, hostage taking is now all about political concessions and money. "Nizar, and others unlawfully detained are hostages — they are being held for ransom and/or political concessions from the US and other governments."

As the Obama administration and Congress have focused on the nuclear matter in recent years, he says, Iran has escalated its arrests of dual nationals, many of them businessmen. Apart from the best-known cases involving westerners, he believes Iran may also holding businessmen from India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan with similar intentions.

 

JCPOA as Leverage

Poblete believes the concessions the Obama administration offered Iran on sanctions as part of nuclear negotiations have reduced America’s leverage and encouraged Iranian security forces and the judiciary to detain innocent foreign nationals. 

He believes hostages should come before the nuclear agreement. “I think all options to secure the release of hostages should be on the table, including the JCPOA,” he says, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the agreement is known in official circles. 

“We believe one of the best and most effective ways of securing the unconditional release of Nizar Zakka and others being held hostage in Iran is to re-impose economic sanctions or enforce those on the books that we said we were not going to enforce,” he says.

When Poblete speaks to Congressional overseers and State Department representatives, he says, he argues that sanctions should target officials who are directly involved in the detentions, along with their family members. Licences to US entities that intend to do business with Iran, he says, should also be frozen.

Poblete faults the Obama administration for institutionalizing a special envoy position for hostage affairs at the State Department. “That should not have been done,” he says. “That office that should have remained behind the scenes without any PR. We should not be telegraphing to the world that we now have a Svengali to deal with hostage affairs. That is not productive use of taxpayers' money.”

Supporters of Obama’s diplomacy with Iran would be appalled to imagine a Trump administration undoing years of diplomatic work under Secretary of State John Kerry, who was able to use his relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in January to secure the release of US sailors detained in the Persian Gulf. What if Iran keeps taking hostages and the US has no one to talk to?

Poblete says Kerry’s approach misses the bigger picture. “Cherry picking who is getting out is extremely cruel. Why does the State Department get to pick and choose who gets out?” So far, the State Department has refused to negotiate on behalf of his client Nizar Zakka because he is not a US citizen. “All hostages should be released,” he says. It shouldn't be one or the other.”

 Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

“Hostage Taking Will Not Happen”

Poblete has high hopes for the Trump presidency. “As President-elect Trump said during the campaign, hostage-taking will not happen if he is president because he would take steps to make that so. Out of the media limelight, he has also supported hostage families as he has done for many of his employees and other Americans when in need.” 

Trump, he says, would do well to follow the example of Ronald Reagan. “Reagan wasn't about negotiating with terror states. Reagan set a tone that he wasn't going to have the same kind of foreign policy that his predecessor had, and he was going to deal more firmly with countries like Iran, because that is something that the radicals at the top understand. They take advantage of weakness. Maybe they won't want to take the risk of upsetting someone like a president Trump.”

Trump famously called the president’s hard-won nuclear accord with Iran and five other countries “the worst deal ever negotiated"

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