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Iran jails U.S. businessman, possibly jeopardizing Biden’s plans for diplomacy with Tehran



WASHINGTON — Only weeks after the U.S, election, and three days after an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated, Iranian authorities convicted an American businessman on spying charges, a family friend told NBC News.

The case threatens to complicate plans by the next administration to pursue diplomacy with Iran, as President-elect Joe Biden has said he would be open to easing sanctions on Tehran if the regime returned to compliance with a 2015 nuclear agreement.

Iranian-American Emad Shargi, 56, was summoned to a Tehran court on Nov. 30 and told he had been convicted of espionage without a trial and sentenced to 10 years, a family friend told NBC News.

Shargi’s family has not heard from him for more than six weeks, the family said in a statement.

Only a year earlier, in December 2019, an Iranian court had cleared Shargi of any wrongdoing, but the regime withheld his Iranian and U.S. passports.

The about-face by the Iranian authorities took place only weeks after Biden won the U.S. presidential election and three days after the killing of a leading nuclear scientist and senior defense official, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, east of Tehran. Iran blamed Israel for the assassination, but Israel has declined to comment on the incident.

Iranian media and Farsi-language outlets had earlier reported Shargi’s conviction but did not mention his American citizenship. After his sentencing, Shargi was not taken into custody but Iranian media reported Shargi was arrested on Dec. 6 in the West Azerbaijan province of Iran, near the northern border with Iraq.

Shargi has been held incommunicado since then, according to his family.

“Emad is the heart and soul of our family,” Shargi’s family said in a statement obtained by NBC News.

“We just pray for his health and safety. It’s been more than six weeks since he was taken and we have no idea where he is or who has him. Out of caution for his well-being, we’ve never spoken publicly about his case and don’t wish to now. Please pray for Emad and for his safe return home.”

Iran’s U.N. mission did not respond to a request for comment.

The White House National Security Council and the Biden transition team did not respond to requests for comment.

Apart from Shargi, there are three other Iranian-Americans under detention in Iran: Siamak Namazi, who has been behind bars since 2015, his elderly father, Baquer, who is on medical furlough, and Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American environmental activist, who also holds British citizenship.

Iranian-American consultant Siamak Namazi in San Francisco in 2006.Ahmad Kiarostami / via Reuters file

The timing of Shargi’s conviction and imprisonment could put at risk planned efforts by the incoming Biden administration to pursue diplomacy with Iran to revive a 2015 nuclear agreement and reduce tensions between the two countries.

President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the multinational JCPOA nuclear deal two years ago and reimposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran. Tehran in turn has gradually violated the terms of the accord that had placed limits on its nuclear work. Biden has said he would be ready to ease the sanctions if Iran returned to compliance with the agreement, which was backed by European powers, Russia and China.

Hardline elements in Iran have remained skeptical of diplomatic overtures to Washington and in the past have backed provocative actions, including the imprisonment of foreign nationals, as a way of undermining any rapprochement with the West, according to regional analysts, human rights groups and former senior U.S. officials.

Shargi was born in Iran and educated in the U.S., earning an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from George Washington University. He and his wife had moved back to Iran in 2016 to reacquaint themselves with the country, the family friend said.

He had worked in the plastics materials industry while in the U.S., for an aviation brokerage firm in Abu Dhabi and, at the time of his arrest, he was working for an investment company called Sarava Holding focused on the tech industry. The family friend said an Iranian media report that suggested he was the number two-ranking executive at the firm was inaccurate and that he was not a major shareholder. He had only been working for the company for a number of months when he was imprisoned in 2018.

Iranian Judge Abolqasem Salavati attends a hearing for Iranian opposition detainees in Tehran on Aug. 8, 2009.Ali Rafiei / AFP via Getty Images file

The family friend described Shargi as a gentle, caring man who was devoted to his family and had no history or interest in political activity.

Shargi was first arrested in April 2018 and held at Evin Prison in Tehran until December 2018, when he was released on bail. While he was behind bars, he was subjected to repeated interrogations, and was blindfolded and placed in the corner of the room facing the wall, the family friend said.

During the first 44 days of his detention, Shargi had no contact with or access to the outside world, including his family, the family friend said.

Shargi’s conviction and sentencing in November 2020 was handled by Judge Abolqasem Salavati of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Court, the family friend said. The judge is known for meting out harsh punishments and has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. Salavati has “sentenced more than 100 political prisoners, human rights activists, media workers and others seeking to exercise freedom of assembly,” according to the Treasury Department.

Human rights groups have accused Iran of arbitrarily imprisoning foreign nationals, violating their rights to due process and using the cases as potential bargaining chips with other governments.

Iran denies the allegations and has rejected accounts that inmates are subject to inhuman treatment or abuse.

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Twitter temporarily suspends GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene



Twitter suspended Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., for 12 hours on Sunday, saying that she has repeatedly run afoul of the company’s misinformation policy.

“The account referenced has been temporarily locked out for multiple violations of our civic integrity policy,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

Greene’s most recent posts included one in which she made false claims about widespread voter fraud in Georgia in both the November election and in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs and another series of tweets in which she repeated more debunked claims and called Georgia’s elections officials “morons.”

Twitter restricted those posts from further promotion and slapped them with warning labels. Her account remained live, but she is unable to post.

Following the riot at the Capitol earlier this month, Twitter has ramped up its crackdown on misleading and false information on its platform. Since the violence, Twitter has suspended tens of thousands of accounts tied to the QAnon conspiracy theory, in addition to indefinitely barring President Donald Trump.

Twitter’s civic integrity policy states the company “will label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process.”

“This includes but is not limited to: disputed claims that could undermine faith in the process itself, such as unverified information about election rigging, ballot tampering, vote tallying, or certification of election results; and misleading claims about the results or outcome of a civic process which calls for or could lead to interference with the implementation of the results of the process,” the company’s policies state.

A freshman lawmaker and a vocal supporter of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election, Greene has previously expressed sympathy for QAnon, though she has since sought to distance herself. Greene, who already pledged to try and impeach President-elect Joe Biden on his first day in office, has come under fire from both Democrats and Republicans since the riots.

“She’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., wrote in an op-ed, criticizing House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., for not disavowing her campaign.

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The stakes are high for Biden’s inaugural address. Here’s what to expect.



As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office facing more crisis than any other president in modern-American history, the stakes for his inaugural address could not be higher.

A transition official tells NBC News Biden has been working on the speech this weekend with family and his senior adviser Mike Donilon and it will emphasize familiar themes from his campaign: unity, healing and a vision for the many crises the country is facing.

Advisers also say the address will echo some of Biden’s recent speeches, which have doubled as opportunities to test inaugural themes. As he unveiled his $1.9 trillion economic package last week Biden cast bipartisanship as essential to addressing the economy and the Covid-19 pandemic: “Unity is not some pie in the sky dream — it’s a practical step to getting the things we have to get done as a country, get done together,” he said.

Still, we are told not to expect Biden’s speech to be filled with soaring rhetoric. Biden believes he connects with people more effectively by taking a plain-spoken approach.

As one Democratic source noted, while some of the most famous lines in American political history are from inaugural addresses — Lincoln’s “malice toward none, charity toward all,” FDR’s “only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” — most Americans likely couldn’t recall major lines from most of the rest.

There is pressure on speechwriters to “write for history.” But Biden’s allies believe that the speech offers an opportunity to continue in the leadership role he has been playing already throughout the transition — at a moment of crisis, demonstrating to the much wider audience that will be tuning in that someone is firmly in charge. That’s why Biden’s speeches throughout the transition have often included a simple line: “Help is on the way,” according to this Democratic source.

“People are just yearning for a little bit of normalcy, and someone who knows what they’re doing and has their hand on the wheel. He’s really good at that,” the Democratic source said. The speech is “going to be Joe Biden” because “unity is part of who Joe Biden is. That’s what he believes.”

Donilon is a chief architect, as he has been of Biden’s message not just in this campaign but most of his previous campaigns. He’s working alongside Vinay Reddy, Biden’s director of speechwriting, who worked for Biden when he was vice president.

Biden’s challenge will be reaching the voters who are still staunchly behind President Donald Trump. He told NBC’s Kristen Welker during the last presidential debate that, if elected, he would use his address to say, “I’m an American President. I represent all of you, whether you voted for me or against me, and I’m going to make sure that you’re represented.”

Aides say Biden will likely end on a similar note that he has highlighted in almost every speech he has given for the past six months: there is nothing Americans cannot do in spite of these challenges if Americans do it together.

In an interview on Sunday with ABC’s “This Week,” incoming White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said the speech “will be a reflection of a lot of what you heard from him on the campaign trail, which is that he believes we can bring this country together. He believes that we have to bring this country together, that a unified America is the only way that we’re going to be able to tackle the massive crises that we’re grappling with.”

She added, “I think you can expect that this will be a moment where President-elect Biden will really work to try to turn the page on the divisiveness and the hatred over the last four years and really lay out a positive, optimistic vision for the country, and lay out a way — lay out a path forward that really calls on all of us to work together.”

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