Family fears US resident jailed in Iran will be left out of prisoner deal

WASHINGTON — Were he not jailed in Iran, Shahab Dalili would likely be an American citizen by now.

At the time of his April 2016 arrest, the retired Iranian shipping captain was a legal permanent resident of the United States on track for citizenship after immigrating with his family two years earlier. When Dalili flew back to Tehran to attend his father’s funeral, his wife and children remained behind in northern Virginia. 

After a week-long stay with relatives in his home country, Dalili was arrested by Iranian intelligence agents on his way to Tehran’s airport. He was later convicted of an espionage-related charge his family says is baseless. 

As he serves a 10-year sentence in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, Dalili’s wife and two sons — all of whom became naturalized US citizens in 2020 — are begging the Biden administration to include him in any deal struck with Tehran. 

In a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week, the family wrote they’ve “exhausted all available avenues for his release.” 

“Our family desperately needs your help,” they wrote. “News reports that an imminent deal with the regime may include the release of some, but not all, hostages are distressing.” 

Dalili’s story of imprisonment is similar to those of dual nationals Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, each of whom are jailed in Iran on spying charges that the US government and their families say are politically motivated. 

But unlike the three men, Dalili is not classified as “wrongfully detained” by the US State Department, a legal designation that would elevate the priority of his case. 

“If he is designated as an American national who is wrongfully detained in Iran, then it becomes almost untenable if you come to an agreement without including him,” Shahab’s son Darian Dalili said in an interview. 

The family has sought the formal determination but hasn’t received an explanation from the State Department on why Dalili isn’t deemed “wrongfully detained.”   

“It just makes me realize that they don’t want to share the rationale as to not designating my father,” he said. 

Dalili believes his father meets the definition of “wrongfully detained” under the Levinson Act, a 2020 law named for the retired FBI agent, Robert Levinson, who is believed to have died in Iran’s custody. 

The Levinson Act lays out 11 criteria for classification, including “credible information indicating innocence of the detained individual” and “United States diplomatic engagement is likely necessary to secure the release.” Meeting any one of the criteria is sufficient to earn the wrongful-detention determination by the secretary of state. 

Importantly, the Levinson Act applies to both US citizens and lawful permanent residents. A notable example is Paul Rusesabagina, the hotelier-turned-dissident in Rwanda who is a permanent US resident. The State Department labeled him wrongfully detained in May 2022, and he was released from a Rwandan prison less than a year later. 

Jonathan Franks, the spokesperson for a coalition of families whose loved ones are wrongfully detained worldwide, said foreign adversaries are increasingly targeting naturalized US citizens and their families. 

“They are being picked off by these hostage-taking countries, and that’s the reason it’s so important that we treat somebody like Shahab just the same as we’d treat an American,” Franks said. “If these people have come to our country for protection, we need to protect them.”

Before retiring in 2012, Dalili spent more than two decades at Iran’s state shipping company, Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines. The company was hit with US sanctions in 2020 for allegedly transporting materials related to Iran’s ballistic missile program. 

Dalili’s only charge by Iranian authorities was “aiding and abetting a hostile nation,” an apparent reference to the United States. According to the Dalili family, the judge referenced his alleged contact with “an American” as the basis for that charge.  

The family’s lawyer, Jason Poblete, said the Levinson Act “was drafted for a case like this.”

“One of the facts that they use against him is that he has a connection to an American person,” said Poblete. “That more than puts them within the basket of people that should be part of any comprehensive agreement to secure the release of US nationals.” 

Poblete also represents the family of Jamshid Sharmahd, an Iranian-German citizen who also has US residency. He was sentenced to death in February following what the German government described as a grossly unfair trial. Sharmahd’s family has urged the Biden administration to play an active role in securing his release. 

It’s unclear where Dalili and Sharmahd fit into the negotiations surrounding a potential prisoner deal. The State Department declined to comment on whether the US government was seeking the release of permanent residents as part of its indirect talks with Iran. 

“The department reviews cases of US nationals detained abroad to determine if there are indicators of a wrongful detention,” a State Department spokesperson said in emailed comments. “Due to privacy considerations, we are not in a position to comment on any US lawful permanent residents who may be detained in Iran. We have nothing further to announce.”

The Dalili family’s plea comes amid reports that Iran and the United States are nearing an agreement to release prisoners on both sides. Last week, Oman’s Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi told Al-Monitor that Tehran and Washington are close to reaching a detainee deal. 

The family remains concerned Dalili could be left behind, as Siamak Namazi was in January 2016. Namazi, who is currently the longest-held American in Iran, was the only US citizen not returned home as part of prisoner exchange under the Obama administration that occurred the same day the Iranian nuclear deal took effect. 

The Biden administration’s point person in the negotiations, US special envoy for Iran Rob Malley, has said the US does not want to “leave anyone behind” this time. But Dalili’s wife, Nahid Khazai, says she’s not encouraged by the administration’s public statements on the prisoners, which have never referenced her husband. 

“I want them to know that there are not only three hostages. There are at least four,” she said. “I want to make sure that when they release the hostages, nobody can tell me they didn’t know about Shahab.” 

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