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American freed in Iran prisoner deal tells harrowing story for the first time

American shares story of being held in Iran
American prisoner brought home after five years trapped in Iran shares his story | 60 Minutes 13:13

For more than five years – 1,975 days – American businessman Emad Shargi was a prisoner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He spent much of that time in the country's most notorious prison, in a dreaded ward run by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Last month, Shargi and four other Americans were freed in a complicated deal involving $6 billion in restricted Iranian oil revenue. The deal drew criticism at the time for granting financial relief to a regime the U.S. government considers the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism. It drew even more scrutiny after Hamas, which is financially supported by Iran, attacked Israel two weeks ago. With more than 200 hostages remaining in Gaza, including some Americans, Shargi's ordeal is a stark illustration of the difficulties and perils involved in bringing American citizens home.

Emad Shargi: This story-- should've never happened. But I didn't waste five and a half years, Margaret. I learned a lot about myself, about humanity, about what is important in life. Being thrown in a cell, it's the closest you come to death.

Emad Shargi is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Iran. He left Iran at age 13, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In the U.S. he went to college, met his wife Bahareh, and started a business representing U.S. chemical companies in the Middle East….and later worked for a private equity firm in Abu Dhabi. By 2016, with their daughters off to college, Emad and Bahareh, who is also Iranian-American, decided to travel to Iran and rediscover their roots…

Iran had just agreed to a landmark deal to limit its nuclear development in exchange for sanctions relief, which made Shargi think the country was full of opportunity. His father thought otherwise.

Emad Shargi with his wife, Bahareh
Emad Shargi with his wife, Bahareh 60 Minutes

Emad Shargi: He said to me, he said, "Emad, you don't know this country. People like you with dual nationalities, they pick these people up once in a while for whatever use they have for them." And I said, "Dad, give me a break, you know. I've never been in the U.S. government. Nothing." And I guess if anybody asks me, "In one sentence, what have you learned from this experience," I would say, "Listen to your dad."

The couple, both in their 50s, began spending time in Iran. Shargi found work consulting for an Amsterdam-based company investing in Iranian businesses.

Margaret Brennan: Was there anything that suggested to you that you were a target, that there was going to be a problem?

Emad Shargi: You know, I thought, "I have a better chance of getting hit crossing the road by a motorbike," when I was there. I did not see this coming.

Just past midnight, on April 23, 2018, about 15 armed agents showed up at the family house in Tehran.

Emad Shargi: Gentleman walked in he said, "This is an arrest warrant for you and for your wife."

Margaret Brennan: On what grounds?

Emad Shargi: He wouldn't tell me at the time. Around 2:30 in the morning they said, "OK. Get ready. We are taking you." And my wife said, "No, you can't take him," and they told her to sit down and mind her business, that they'll get to her later.

Margaret Brennan: What did that mean?

Emad Shargi: I did not know at the time. So when they took me out of that house I did not know what was going to happen to my wife.

Margaret Brennan: That's terrifying.

Emad Shargi: Yep. It's not a position you want to be in.

Margaret Brennan and Emad Shargi
Margaret Brennan and Emad Shargi 60 Minutes

He was taken to a place in Tehran Iranians have long feared - Evin a special ward known as 2A, run by the intelligence division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Emad Shargi: They took me to a room. They told me to strip naked. They gave me some blue garbs. They told me, "This is the end of the line for you, and most likely you'll never see the outside world." "From now on nobody will address you by your name. You are a code now," 97-0-10 was my code. 

Margaret Brennan: That's dehumanizing.

Emad Shargi: Ah, they were experts at that. And then hell starts.

Margaret Brennan: Torture.

Emad Shargi: Threats of torture and psychological torture. They take you to a very small room. And then they throw a giant of a human being in there, who proceeds to hit you, to push you around, to threaten to kill you. And then the good cop comes in, and he says, "Look, I can put a stop to this. You just need to confess."

Margaret Brennan: Confess to what?

Emad Shargi: They said, "You have to confess that you are a spy," which is ludicrous. 

Shargi says his interrogators threatened him with electrical shocks, water-boarding, and hanging, but never followed through.

Emad Shargi: So I realized they don't want to damage their product at that point.

Margaret Brennan: Product.

Emad Shargi: Correct.

Margaret Brennan: Why do you choose that word?

Emad Shargi: Because that's what I was. 

Margaret Brennan: You believe you were taken simply because you were American to extract a price.

Emad Shargi: Correct. 

He told us some interrogations went on for nine hours a day.

Margaret Brennan: What did you tell them during all those hours of questioning?

Emad Shargi: I mean, the most mundane things. The first day they kept asking me, "Why did you go to the White House church?" And I'm just thinking to myself, going, "I know the White House doesn't have a church." And then it clicked. They had hacked my Facebook. They had seen the pictures of us attending my daughter's events at school at the National Cathedral. They had no idea the National Cathedral had nothing to do wa-- with the White House.

Margaret Brennan: This is an intelligence service.

Emad Shargi: You would be surprised. They had my telephone so they had gone through the list of every person I'd ever met during the last 30 years of my business career. "Who are these? Who are those?" These questions would go on day after day after day.

In December 2018, after eight months of interrogation, Emad Shargi was suddenly released on bail. His wife Bahareh, who'd never been arrested, was able to leave the country. Emad expected to join her soon; he says he received a letter of exoneration. But he wasn't allowed to leave Iran.

Emad Shargi: Now my story takes a bizarre turn. My file had been sent to the Revolutionary Court. It's where a gentleman by the name of Judge Salavati sits, also known as the hanging judge. 

In November 2020, the hanging judge sentenced Shargi to 10 years in prison under a broadly-worded statute which prohibits cooperating "by any means" with foreign states against Iran. Before Shargi had to report back to prison, a friend came up with a plan.

Margaret Brennan: To escape.

Emad Shargi: To escape. And I said, "Let's go."

Smugglers helped him make his way to Iran's mountainous border with Kurdistan. But about 30 miles from freedom… 

Emad Shargi: I look up. And there is about 15 guys with AK-47 pointing at the car.. They threw me on the ground. And their team leader came. He opened the scarf that I-- they had put around my eyes. And he looked away and he shook his head to his team members. 

Margaret Brennan: They were looking for somebody else--

Emad Shargi: They were looking for somebody. But now we have round two of incarceration

This Iranian propaganda photo taken in January 2021 shows him bearded and shackled, being escorted back to ward 2a…where he says he underwent another eight months of interrogation.

Emad Shargi: This second eight months, I was interrogated close to 400 hours.

Margaret Brennan: How do you stay sane?

Emad Shargi
Emad Shargi 60 Minutes

Emad Shargi: All of those times, there was never a doubt in my mind that my government would get me out. That was my hope.

Back in Washington, Bahareh and her daughters campaigned for Emad's release

….and sought help from the State Department, which reviewed Shargi's case and determined he was wrongfully detained.

The Biden administration had been trying to broker both the release of American detainees and the renewal of the Iran Nuclear Deal, which the Trump administration had pulled out of.

But the talks stalled.

In the fall of 2022, widespread protests broke out following the death of a young woman in the custody of Iran's morality police.

In Evin Prison, the inmates rioted and set fires…the guards responded with tear gas and bullets.

Emad Shargi: It was happening a couple of yards from where I was sitting in-- in my room. Now, if I left, I could be shot. If I stayed, I could suffocate.

With no good option, he stayed in his cell. Shargi says he was rescued, ironically, by his tormentors – a team of Revolutionary guards. 

Emad Shargi: They were pale white when they saw me. They were like, "Emad, let's get the hell out of here."

Margaret Brennan: Because you're worth more alive than you are dead.

Emad Shargi: Correct

Shortly after the fire, Emad's sister Neda sought a meeting with Iran's top diplomat at the United Nations, Amir Saeid Iravani. She wanted to learn what was holding up a prisoner deal.

Neda Sharghi
Neda Sharghi, Emad's sister 60 Minutes

Margaret Brennan: He acknowledged to you that there are people inside his own government that didn't want the deal to happen.

Neda Sharghi: Yeah. I mean, he acknowledged that. Just as there are people in our government who didn't want this to happen. You know, we're dealing with innocent human lives, and we want to rectify the situation. But for other people, it's politics and it's power. And they get in the way.

Arranging a meeting with President Biden proved more difficult for Neda. Determined to help her brother, she went to this crowded White House reception for the Persian New Year, and managed to button-hole the president after he spoke….

Neda Sharghi: I told him they are American citizens who are innocent and need to come home as soon as possible, because time is not on our side.

After roughly two years of start and stop negotiations, the U.S. and Iran reached a complex agreement.

Six billion dollars that Iran had earned from selling its oil had been tied up in a foreign account for years due to U.S. sanctions. According to U.S. officials, Iran can use the money to buy humanitarian goods like food and medicine once the U.S. approves the transactions. The money goes to the suppliers, not the government of Iran.

On September 18th, President Biden granted clemency to five Iranians accused of non-violent crimes. Five Americans, including Emad Shargi, were released and flown to Qatar.

From there, they flew to a military base in Virginia…. where their families were waiting...

Emad Shargi and family
Emad Shargi with his family 60 Minutes

Emad Shargi: I hadn't seen my daughters for five and a half, six years. I had missed all their graduations, birthdays, anniversaries with my wife. It's like being born again. We had thought we were going to be freed so many times, and this was it.

Since his release, Emad's making up for lost time with his family…he's also had time to reflect.

Emad Shargi: You think to yourself, "What was this all about?" "Why did-- did they do this to me and to my family?"

Margaret Brennan: For five years.

Emad Shargi: And the short answer is-- hostage-taking as statecraft

Margaret Brennan: If you are an American--

Emad Shargi: Yes.

Margaret Brennan: An Iranian American--

Emad Shargi: No. Iranian American, Italian American, American, do not go to Iran.

Less than three weeks after Shargi's release, Hamas - which is financially backed by Iran - attacked Israel. As Israel counter-attacked in Gaza, some U.S. lawmakers have called for blocking Iran's access to the $6 billion. The White House insists no money has been released so far and sources told us the arrangement has not changed. 

Margaret Brennan: When you watch the news right now and you see what has happened in Israel-- not just about the people killed, but the hostages that have been taken, what is that like for you? 

Emad Shargi: I cannot imagine what it must feel like to have your daughter, your son, your wife, your father being taken hostage. And I cannot believe what's the families are going through. I just wish them a safe return home. 

Produced by Andy Court. Associate producer, Annabelle Hanflig. Broadcast associates, Eliza Costas and Sophia Barkoff. Edited by Warren Lustig.

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