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3 Years Later, A Prisoner's Family Still Awaits His Return From Iran

Bahareh and Emad Shargi in California in June 2017.
Bahareh Shargi
Bahareh and Emad Shargi in California in June 2017.

Later this month, Bahareh Shargi will mark an anniversary: It will be three years that her husband has been stuck in Iran.

Iranian authorities first imprisoned Emad Shargi, a U.S. citizen, on April 23, 2018. Though they eventually released him on bail, they did not allow him to leave the country and later returned him to Tehran's Evin prison. Now his family hopes that speaking out may help him.

His wife discussed his case at the Washington, D.C., home where they raised two daughters. She sat on their concrete back porch, which overlooks a playground set from the days when their children were little. "I'm so proud to have spent the last 32 years with him," she said. She calls these last three years spent apart "this ordeal."

Emad, Shargi, 56, is one of numerous U.S. citizens who have been arrested in Iran over the years on opaque charges of espionage. He said he was innocent, and Iran made no evidence public.

Iranian diplomats have frequently spoken of exchanging such prisoners for Iranians in U.S. prisons. While the United States formally rejects any such exchanges, some U.S. and Iranian prisoners were released during the Trump administration. But not Emad Shargi.

Bahareh Shargi, 53, said she and her husband were born in Iran, and both moved to the United States when they were young and became citizens. But they maintained family ties to their native country, and when their children went to college a few years ago, they chose to take an opportunity to live in Tehran.

Emad Shargi in 2015
/ Bahareh Shargi
Bahareh Shargi
Emad Shargi in 2015

"We had this window of time where we thought, 'We can travel,' " she said.

They occupied a house in Tehran belonging to Bahareh Shargi's family. Emad Shargi, a businessman, had previously worked in the Persian Gulf region and briefly worked for the Dutch arm of an Iranian venture capital firm.

His wife insists that they had no hint of trouble with Iranian authorities until after midnight on April 23, 2018, when she woke to find "15, 16, 17 men and a woman, strangers in our home." They took the couple's passports and many other documents, and left with Emad.

She followed him to Evin prison, an imposing mountainside structure in north Tehran. It occupies an outsized place in the Iranian psyche as the destination for many who fall out of favor with Iran's security services. She passed through its gates daily, seeking to meet a senior official, but only reached a secretary who told her to go home. She recounts being told, "We will call you. Your husband will be here for a long, long time."

Emad Shargi was released from prison in December 2018, but his passport was not returned, making it impossible for him to travel. His wife reluctantly returned to the U.S., hoping he could follow. But after nearly two years of waiting, he was rearrested in November 2020.

Bahareh Shargi grew concerned that month when she could not reach him by video conference as she usually did. Finally she learned he was back in prison from the BBC Persian news service. "I opened my phone," she said, and saw "three pictures of a man that looked like Emad, but had aged, I would say, 20, 30 years since the last time I had seen him on FaceTime."

The Shargi family in 2015.
/ Bahareh Shargi
Bahareh Shargi
The Shargi family in 2015.

In February Emad was allowed to begin calling from Evin. He said he had been convicted in a trial he did not attend, and issued a 10-year sentence.

Bahareh Shargi and their daughters, Hannah, 22, and Ariana, 24, gather around the phone when he calls.

"What I've been trying to do lately is let him know we are doing other things and higher up people are doing other things, and 'You are not forgotten,' " Bahareh Shargi said.

On a recent call, she informed her husband that U.S. and Iranian diplomats would be in Vienna this week, passing messages back and forth. It's an effort to find a way for the U.S. to rejoin a nuclear agreement with Iran and other world powers.

When U.S. diplomats last negotiated over Iran's nuclear program during the Obama administration, they worked to keep the talks separate from the discussions of imprisoned Americans. They wanted to avoid being asked to pay a kind of nuclear ransom for prisoners. These most recent nuclear talks are tentative — U.S. and Iranian officials are not even in the same room — but Rob Malley, the U.S. envoy to Iran, said President Biden "cares deeply" about getting "the American citizens released as soon as possible, reunited with their loved ones."

"They're not part of this negotiation, but they're part, in fact, of our thinking," Malley told NPR in an interview Monday. "And we're determined to see them released regardless of what happens on the nuclear track."

The families of Americans being held in Iran have urged the Biden administration to make their release a priority.

"Looking back," said Bahareh Shargi, "it was one big mistake of going there."

She gestured out into the backyard of their Washington home. "His best times were under this cherry blossom tree, which, if you come back in 20 days, is in full bloom [and] pink." She has no way to know when her husband might return to see their backyard cherry trees.

She remembered when their daughters were small, and "showered themselves with cherry blossoms" as the petals fell. "And the reason I say that is that I want to tell these people [that] you have the wrong person. Why do you have Emad?"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.

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