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Biden Administration Begins Talks With Iran On American Detainees

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now, as it tries to open a diplomatic channel with Iran, the Biden administration is facing another test with that country - how to win the freedom of American detainees there. Iran has a track record of holding people for prisoner swaps or other deals. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Babak Namazi, whose brother and father have been held by Iran, thought there was a breakthrough in his father's case last year. He says Iran commuted his father's sentence and told him he was free to leave and apply for a passport. Then the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps imposed a new travel ban.

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BABAK NAMAZI: It is beyond outrageous that Iran continues playing with my father's life.

KELEMEN: Namazi says his father, former UNICEF official Baquer Namazi, was lured back to Iran five years ago today with a promise that he could visit his son, who was already in prison. In the years since, father and son have been left out of prisoner swaps for Iranians being held in the U.S. during both the Obama and the Trump administrations.

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NAMAZI: And with my father's health continuing to decline rapidly, my family will not survive being left behind yet again.

KELEMEN: Lawyer Jared Genser, in a press briefing with the family today, said the Biden administration shouldn't have to trade prisoners or negotiate to get 84-year-old Baquer Namazi out because officially, Iran closed that case. But another American, Emad Shargi, who was cleared of previous charges, was rearrested last November. And Genser calls that a shot across the bow for the Biden administration.

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JARED GENSER: But the fact that he was summarily convicted and sentenced without a trial after Biden was elected is a very clear signal that Tehran, you know, is going to continue to proceed with its policy of hostage-taking not just with Americans, but around the world.

KELEMEN: Genser says Iran is holding about 15 foreign nationals, including at least four Americans. State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters in his briefing today that this is a priority for the Biden administration.

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NED PRICE: We will not accept a long-term proposition where Iran continues to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner.

KELEMEN: Iranian officials deny that they've had direct talks with the Biden administration about prisoners, but Price says the U.S. is using the channels it has to discuss the subject.

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