Eman Mohammed

The Americans Left Behind in Iran

The U.S. president prides himself on freeing American prisoners held abroad. So why isn’t he pushing harder for the ones in Iran?

Nizar Zakka never believed he was getting out.

He had been held in an Iranian prison for nearly four years, and every so often, the prison guards would tell him he was about to be released, only to return him to his cell. In a recent interview after he was finally freed, he said he understood why ISIS captives looked so calm in beheading videos: They went through a similar process of conditioning, one that killed off fear.

Iran released Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and United States permanent resident, on June 11 after intense lobbying from the Lebanese government. The State Department issued a muted statement after the release, and has not publicly acknowledged playing a role, initially saying only that it was “aware of reports” that he had been freed and praising Beirut’s advocacy. But for Zakka, the single most important factor in getting him or anyone else out of prison in Iran is to make noise—a lot of noise—to pressure Tehran in the most public way possible.

“I’m sure a lot has been done behind the scenes, and I am thankful,” the 52-year-old IT executive told us. But, he went on, “when you are a hostage, you need to know that the world is talking about you. The worst thing is that you feel left behind, and nobody is asking about you.”

There are at least five U.S. citizens, mostly dual nationals, currently jailed in Iran, some of whom were detained before Donald Trump took office. Another American, Robert Levinson, disappeared in Iran 12 years ago. (The U.S. law on Americans unjustly detained overseas applies only to citizens, though the U.S. has taken an interest in high-profile permanent residents in the past and may have an obligation to them under some circumstances.)

The Trump administration has attacked Iran’s economy with sanctions, and called for prisoner releases among the 12 demands it has made in order for Iran to get economic relief and a normal relationship with the United States. But lawyers, former officials, and family members of U.S. prisoners we interviewed in recent weeks nearly all argued that Washington needed to press more vocally and effectively for their release. During the president’s ongoing confrontation with Iran—complete with tanker explosions in the Gulf, downed drones, and a U.S. near-strike—the subject of U.S. prisoners has faded into the background.

Trump’s restraint on the issue is all the more puzzling given that his administration has otherwise made a priority of getting American prisoners out of jails abroad—everywhere from North Korea to Sweden, where he recently took the remarkable step of sending his special hostage envoy to press for the release of the rapper A$AP Rocky, who had been jailed on assault charges. (“It’s ridiculous,” Zakka said of the intervention. “Hostage in Sweden? That’s too much.”)

Under Trump, the hostility between Iran and the United States has escalated rapidly, at one point this summer bringing the countries to the brink of a military conflict. Trump has found himself consumed with the cycle of provocation and escalation, and in that process, relegated the prisoners to a blip on his radar. In one of his Twitter diatribes, he warned Iran that the U.S. had not forgotten the many Americans killed by Iranian bombs, but made no mention of the Americans languishing in Iranian jails. With the president so focused on bringing Iran to its knees, negotiating hostage releases isn’t the top priority.

“They [the Trump administration] deserve credit for bringing people home from other countries,” says Jason Rezaian, an Iranian American journalist with The Washington Post who was himself imprisoned in Iran and released in a prisoner exchange under the Obama administration. “Which to me shines an even brighter light on the fact that they’ve failed so miserably in bringing people home from Iran so far.”

Jason Poblete, an American lawyer who is representing Zakka and who is also advising Xiyue Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen detained in Iran, says that he believes the Trump administration played a role in Zakka’s freedom, but should have been more transparent about its efforts, in order to signal clearly to the Iranians that there can be future negotiations on releases. “If you have the political will to secure their release, you’ll get them out no matter what,” Poblete told us. “I have found doors open during the Trump administration and the Obama administration. There is more to U.S.-Iran policy than what is in the headlines. With political will from the administration and the Congress—both sides of the aisle—unlawfully held Americans in Iran would be home.”

Trump has said he’s willing to negotiate with Iran, but is in no particular hurry because, he argues, it’s Iran that will suffer the longer U.S. sanctions continue. “There is absolutely no time pressure,” he said at the G20 summit this summer. But that’s not true for the Americans caught in the geopolitical crossfire, or for their families back home.

“You cannot just say ‘I don’t want to negotiate about the hostages,’ and leave the hostages over there,” said Zakka, who still bears the signs of his long imprisonment, fidgeting nervously and tearing up more than once in our hour-long conversation. “They don’t deserve that.”

Brett McGurk, who served under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump and played a key role in a January 2016 prisoner exchange with Iran, says that while he presumed Trump’s hostage envoy was working hard to secure prisoner releases from Iran, the White House had a larger policy problem. “The administration’s key assumption that unilateral pressure will bring Iran to its knees and to the table is a flawed assumption,” McGurk told us. “Pressure needs to be combined with diplomacy and there does not seem to be much of the latter.”

Nizar Zakka crosses his wrists. (Eman Mohammed / The Atlantic)

Forty years of hostility between the United States and Iran began with hostages. In the Islamic Revolution of 1979, radical students took and held more than 50 Americans in the U.S. embassy. A daring rescue attempt ended in the wreckage of an American helicopter in the Iranian desert, a scandal that scarred the last days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The hostages weren’t released until after they’d spent 444 days in captivity—right after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, in exchange for financial incentives the Carter administration had agreed to in its final moments.

But in the process, the Iranians found hostage taking to be an effective tactic, one they would return to in the following decades—and one for which the Americans never really found a proper answer. As The New York Times Magazine has noted, U.S. responses have included the rescue debacle and then the financial agreement under Carter, an illegal attempt to barter hostages for arms under Reagan, and another deal involving financial incentives under George H. W. Bush. By the time the Obama administration was nearing the implementation of its nuclear deal, set for mid-January 2016, U.S. officials still did not know where Levinson was, and there were at least four other American prisoners publicly known to be held in Iranian jails, including Rezaian, the former marine Amir Hekmati, the pastor Saeed Abedini, and the businessman Siamak Namazi.

American officials who were involved in U.S.-Iran negotiations at the time have said publicly that the discussion over the nuclear issue was separate from the one over prisoner releases, but that opening diplomacy on the former issue facilitated talks on the latter. The point was that the Americans had direct channels open to the Iranians on both. It took 14 months of haggling to settle on a prisoner exchange, which finally came about on January 16, 2016. Early news reports said that the U.S. had gotten back four of its prisoners, which initially suggested that all the known prisoners were getting out.

Rezaian told us the diplomatic channel to discuss prisoners was key to his release after more than a year behind bars. “Would I have been much more satisfied if they brought me home a lot earlier? Yes,” he said. “But I wasn’t coming home if there wasn’t a protracted series of negotiations going on between the two countries.”

But not everybody was on the plane.

Members of the Levinson and Namazi families told us they learned about the prisoner releases on television. At first, they felt intense relief, believing their loved ones must have been part of the deal. Then came apprehension as the hours passed with no official word from the State Department. It ultimately turned out that the U.S. had gotten six of its citizens released in exchange for seven Iranians in U.S. custody, who were awaiting trial or had been convicted of things like sanctions violations. Among the Americans were three whose imprisonment was already public, plus three others.

Siamak Namazi and Bob Levinson were not among them. For their families, the initial spark of hope culminated in the crushing realization that neither of them was coming home. It was the mirror image of what the Iranians inflicted on Zakka, the emotional torture of having hope ignited and then abruptly snuffed out. “I can’t describe to you what it feels like to actually go through feeling like your brother's going to be released,” Namazi’s brother, Babak, told us, “and then going through the pain and horror of realizing minute by minute that something was devastatingly wrong.”

In Levinson’s case, the deal didn’t even yield any information on where he was being held or whether he was still alive; he had gone missing under mysterious circumstances on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, and was later reported to have been there on contract for the CIA. Namazi had been arrested in 2015 on charges of “collusion with an enemy state,” namely the United States. The Iranians used Siamak’s affiliation with the World Economic Forum as evidence of this, according to Babak—even though the organization is Swiss, and even though both Iran’s president and its foreign minister have attended its annual conference in Davos. Babak said that after the 2016 prisoner exchange, the State Department tried to reassure him that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had promised his brother would be out in a few weeks.

Yet Namazi would stay in prison, and Levinson somewhere unknown, for the remainder of the Obama administration. Within weeks of the January swap, Siamak’s elderly father, Baquer, also an Iranian American dual national, was arrested. (He is now on a restricted medical furlough and has to report back to prison every week.) With sanctions relief under the nuclear deal, the U.S. had little leverage left to press for more releases. But the Iran deal at least provided a mechanism for discussions between the U.S. and Iran on other issues in the relationship, including prisoners.

Zakka said he and Siamak watched the prisoner release on television, from inside the prison. Zakka was moved to Rezaian’s bed the day the journalist left. “We were like products being sold,” Zakka told us. “The first product has gone, and they put a new product on the shelf.”

There would be others. Wang, a Princeton doctoral student, went to Iran in 2016 to do archival research on the 19th-century nomads of the region, reassured by the promise of the thaw that followed the nuclear deal. Iranian authorities detained him, too, that August. Since then, his wife, Hua Qu, said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., this summer, marking the three years he’d been gone, “our lives have turned into endless struggle in the constant swirl of geopolitical tensions.”

Trump came into the White House making a vocal priority of getting American detainees home from overseas. Within months of taking office, his administration secured the release of Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American aid worker who had spent almost three years in an Egyptian prison—an achievement Trump celebrated with a tweeted video showing clips of Hijazi in the Oval Office as “God Bless the U.S.A.” played in the background.

Two of Levinson’s children said they were encouraged by a strong statement from then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer from the White House podium in March 2017—marking the 10-year anniversary of their father’s disappearance. “The Trump administration remains unwavering in our commitment to locate Mr. Levinson and bring him home,” Spicer said at the time. “The Levinson family has suffered far too long, and we will not rest until his case is resolved.” Two of Levinson’s children, Sarah and her brother David, recalled that statement as marking a shift in tone to a stronger posture on finding their father.

Trump said last year that he had gotten 17 American prisoners released from unjust detention overseas—including the pastor Andrew Brunson, arrested in 2016 and held in Turkey for two years; Joshua Holt, detained in 2016 when he traveled to Venezuela to get married; and Tony Kim, Kim Hak-Song, and Kim Dong-chul, three Americans who had been imprisoned in North Korea. The American student Otto Warmbier was also released from North Korea; he came home with severe brain damage, in an apparent sign of torture, and died soon afterward.

Yet Americans continued to languish in jail in Iran, and meanwhile Trump pursued other priorities. In May 2018, Trump withdrew from Obama’s nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions and closing off an avenue for discussion, while insisting on a range of concessions ,such as a halt to Iran’s nefarious regional activities and new restrictions on its nuclear program. (Zakka said inmates would cheer whenever they saw Trump on television, because of his hard-line Iran policy.)

The administration insists it is making all efforts to get its prisoners home, which Rezaian calls a “disingenuous throwaway line.” He said that his conversations with people who work in and around Iran policy have left him with the impression that not much is happening on the hostage front—though the negotiations that led to his own release weren’t public at the time. Zarif has floated the idea of a prisoner exchange, to which the administration has responded that the American prisoners in Iran should simply be released immediately, since their detention is unjust in the first place. The United States has since sanctioned Zarif personally, further complicating the prospects for diplomacy.

But time is running out. Baquer Namazi is 83 and in poor health. “My father’s extremely frail and getting worse,” Babak said. He said the U.S. has to find some kind of humanitarian solution, quickly. “At the same time,” he said, “I beg the Iranian government to allow my father to leave the country to spend what short time he has left with his grandchildren who miss him terribly, and to get the medical attention he so desperately needs.”

Joel Simon, the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told us that in the campaigns CPJ has been involved in with detained journalists, he believes a public response usually gets more results. “While each case is different, I generally believe that when it comes to Iran a campaign of maximalist pressure is most effective.”

Simon, the author of We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom, added: “I would always defer to the families and to media organizations or whatever organizations [have] to make these really difficult decisions. But the fact that when you engage with Iranian officials they always tell you not to make noise, and that if you don’t make noise, things will be resolved more quickly, that’s probably an indication that you should do precisely the opposite.”

Rezaian noted that no one really talks about the concessions exchanged for the prisoners the Trump administration has gotten out around the world. “In the end, the people that come home always come home because there was a concession made,” Rezaian said. “It’s not as though one day, you know, terrorist regimes like ISIS, or Boko Haram, or the Iranian or Venezuelan regimes say, ‘You know what? We feel really bad, we’re gonna let you go.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Zakka, though, did get out. For him there was no celebratory video in Washington, D.C., and no Oval Office meeting. What he did get was a surreal trip to a mall in downtown Tehran that Iranian security forces cleared out for him to purchase a silk carpet as a farewell gift. He still didn’t believe he was totally free when he got on the Beirut-bound plane with a senior Lebanese government official who peppered him with questions about his ordeal.

“We had this screen [showing] where the plane is, so I said, ‘Okay, wait.’ He said, ‘Talk!’ I said, ‘No, no, we have to wait’ ... So we waited until we crossed [Iranian airspace] and then I started telling him all the bad words I could think of.”

Not long after that, Hua Qu held the Washington press conference where she noted that her son, 3 years old at the time of his father’s arrest, was now 6, having spent half his life without his father. She said she spoke with her husband frequently, and that books were his only escape from the conditions in his cell, which he shared with some 20 other prisoners. He was, she said with a sad laugh, still a “nerd,” asking to be sent academic books he would stoop over from his cramped bunk. She’d spoken with him the day before, she said—Chinese Valentine’s Day. They spoke of going on a nice vacation together when he was out. There were no public efforts, though, to secure his release, she said, and she was now speaking publicly to try to force the administration to pay more attention, to speak out.

The State Department’s office of the special envoy for hostage affairs declined to comment despite repeated inquiries. When we sought comment from the White House, a senior administration official said that “bringing Americans held captive home is a priority for the administration.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, added: “The U.S. government will never quit advocating on behalf of Americans wrongfully detained in Iran until they are all released.”

Rezaian and Zakka are among the luckier ones.

Zakka, now a free man, lives in the wealthy Washington, D.C., neighborhood of Kalorama—the Obamas and the Kushners are among his neighbors. But now starts a new ordeal, of reintegrating back into the real world, doing normal things. Sleep is not easy. For the first year he spent in prison, he said, when he slept he would dream he was out. In the second year, he stopped. Now that he’s out, he dreams he’s back in.

“So, I try not to sleep,” he said.

He didn’t trust himself to have his first drink in public, so he took a bottle of red wine home one evening—he lives alone, too scared, he told us, to see any family—and drank a couple of glasses to see how he’d react.

The mental anguish is harder to overcome.

“We’re all crazy,” he used to tell other inmates with whom he experienced the toll of imprisonment, hope and disappointment, and loss of dignity. “But we don’t know that because we’re all going crazy together, but when we get out, we’re going to realize we’re crazy because everybody outside is not crazy.”