— Jason Rezaian (@jrezaian) June 10, 2014
Lawmakers prodded administration officials at two hearings on Iran nuclear negotiations on how the fate of Americans being held by Tehran is figuring into the talks — especially since Iran recently detained even more U.S. citizens.
Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, was kidnapped on Kish Island in March 2007. Amir Hekmati, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq war, was seized in August 2011 while visiting extended family. Saeed Abedini, a pastor who was opening an orphanage in the country with the permission of the government, was arrested in July 2012.
Images of Levinson in captivity have been sporadically received by his family. Hekmati and Abedini languish in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Last week, Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen through his father’s Iranian heritage, and his Iranian wife, who works for The National newspaper out of the UAE, were arrested by Iran. The Post reported that they have not been allowed to contact their families, but Iranian officials confirmed Friday that they were in government custody.
Reporters Without Borders said Monday that “a freelance Iranian-American photographer who works for various news organizations including the Washington Post was also arrested, together with her non-journalist husband.”
“Her family did not want to disclose her identity. The whereabouts of the couple and the reasons for their arrest are not known,” the group said. Some reports indicated that another American journalist was seized, but this appears to have been a mix-up with the photographer’s husband.
“Before I get to the negotiation questions, I do have a question for you, Madam Secretary, about the detention of the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran, Jason Rezaian, who I understand is a dual citizen, including a citizen of the United States, and his wife who were arrested at their home last Tuesday,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked at the beginning of a Tuesday hearing with Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, the lead U.S. negotiator in the P5+1 talks.
“Since their arrest, no one’s heard from them and two U.S. citizens working as freelance photographers are also being held. To my knowledge, no charges have been bought and the detainees apparently have no access to legal counsel,” Menendez continued. “Can you tell me what we’re doing on this regard?”
“Thank you for raising this. It is of great concern to all of us, as is the continued detention of Amir Hekmati and Pastor Abedini and our concern about Robert Levinson, who’s been missing for a very long time and we believe in Iran,” Sherman said. “We have in fact used our appropriate channels, principally the Swiss, to make known our concern about this apparent detention of an American journalist and his wife and the additional photojournalists. There is absolutely no reason for this to occur.”
“I read with interest the Washington Post editorial with which, I entirely agree, this — we are a country that believes in press freedom,” she continued. “This is a reporter who has been reporting from some time, had been in Vienna with us, in fact, during the negotiations and we call on Iran to release all of these people, including Pastor Abedini, Amir Hekmati and to help us in every way possible to return Robert Levinson home as well.”
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) noted in the “kindest and gentlest” terms that he’s “urged” Sherman to “do something about getting past Abedini and the other two Americans released.” Abdeini is his constituent.
“I was incredibly critical of you guys because you cut billions loose without demanding this tiny, tiny little thing as far as Iran was concerned,” Risch said. “I want to ratchet that up a little bit. You did it again. You’ve cut billions loose without getting those three guys released. Do me a favor. Do America a favor. Do the Abedini family a favor. Tell them next time you’re not going to give them any more money unless they let these three people loose. I can almost guarantee you they’re gonna do that.”
“You’re talking about billion of dollars, and you’re talking about three people that we really, really need out of prisons in Iran. Try it. Just try it and see what happens. I’m willing to bet you they’re gonna cut those three loose in return for the money that you have available to give them.”
Menendez noted at the conclusion of the hearing how Sherman said “Iranians pay attention to Congress.”
“If they want to pay attention to Congress, they should let go of Dr. Abedini and every other American they have hostage,” the chairman said. “That’s a helluva message.”
In a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that afternoon, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) stressed to Sherman that delinking human rights from the six-party talks with North Korea resulted in “nothing that was gained during those talks.”
“I and many others have urged that human rights be integrated with the talks on the nuclear issue with Iran and especially now with Abedini,” Smith said, noting that Monday was the two-year anniversary of the pastor’s arrest.
“We condemn Iran’s support for state-sponsored terrorism, for acts of human rights,” Sherman said. “Indeed, our own human rights report, our own religious freedom report shows that indeed, there have been summary executions in Iran and there is no doubt — I have met with all of the families, Pastor Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Christine Levinson — and I spend every time that I meet with the Iranians — I have a session separately on Americans of concern to us and certainly have added the journalist to that list.”
“There is absolutely no reason for such detentions whatsoever and they do nothing, of course, to help create a climate that would make a nuclear negotiation successful,” she added.
— Jason Rezaian (@jrezaian) December 26, 2012