US prisoners must be released before nuclear deal with Iran, congressional group says

'Iran cannot financially benefit from a nuclear agreement while still actively holding Americans,' Ted Deutch says

Siamak Namazi (jailed in Iran) and father Baquer. courtesy: Paul Peachey
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A bipartisan group of US lawmakers on Thursday said there must be no return to the nuclear deal with Iran until the country frees all Americans it is currently detaining.

Ted Deutch, a Democratic congressman, and his Republican colleague French Hill made the remarks during a roundtable discussion with the families of current and former detainees.

They said the issue must be a priority in any negotiations to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which put curbs on Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

“The issue of returning American hostages and unlawful detainees must be at the top of the agenda,” said Mr Deutch.

“Every American held in Iran must return home immediately.”

He said no sanctions relief related to the deal should be granted to Iran while it holds US citizens.

“Iran cannot financially benefit from a nuclear agreement while still actively holding Americans,” Mr Deutch added.

Asked by The National if he has received any assurances from US President Joe Biden's administration and the Iran negotiating team on this matter, Mr Deutch said that he relayed his position to the White House in a call on Thursday.

“This is a priority. I have made it clear to them this morning,” he said.

Other members of Congress participating in the event — including Sheila Jackson Lee, Tom Suozzi, Colin Allred and Haley Stevens — agreed with Mr Deutch.

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Ms Lee, a Democrat, described the practice as “human terrorism”.

Iran currently has four US citizens in custody: Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz.

In 2020, the US concluded that former FBI agent Bob Levinson, the longest-held hostage in American history, is likely to have died in Iranian custody.

His daughter, Sarah Moriarty, speaking at the same event on Thursday, said the family is seeking help from the Biden team in obtaining definitive confirmation from Iran on Mr Levinson’s death and any other information that could bring the family closure.

Ms Moriarty told The National that the administration told her that the hostage issue is “closely tied” to nuclear deal negotiations, but her family was given no guarantees of receiving full closure.

Mr Sharghi's sister, Neda Sharghi, said she had hoped to see a stronger push from the administration and Congress for her brother's release, while Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese-American former prisoner in Iran, stressed that the JCPOA negotiations should not come at the expense of US detainees.

Attempts to return to the nuclear deal have stalled following Iran’s response to the US-European Union proposal two weeks ago. It is unclear when those negotiations may resume.

A State Department official told The National on Thursday that Mr Biden "is deeply committed to ensuring all US citizens who are wrongfully detained overseas return home safely".

The official said negotiations over the fate of the US detainees are treated with "the utmost urgency" by the administration and Iran was urged to do the same.

"Iran must allow Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz to come back to their loved ones," the official added.

But the official said negotiations over detainees are being held "independently from the discussions on the JCPOA".

Mr Biden will on Friday meet family members of WNBA star Brittney Griner and former marine Paul Whelan, both of whom remain jailed in Russia, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Thursday.

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Updated: September 15, 2022, 10:13 PM