Secretary of State John Kerry will fly to Vienna tomorrow ahead of the June 30 deadline for a nuclear deal with Iran — and the family of one of the U.S. hostages is scheduled to be in the Austrian city the following day to make their desperate plea.
Amir Hekmati, a Marine veteran who served as a sergeant in Iraq, was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage. Iran claims that the Flagstaff, Ariz., native is an Iranian citizen by virtue of his father’s birth country, and thus says the U.S. has no right to interfere in the case. Amir has renounced that birthright Iranian citizenship.
While Amir has stressed that he doesn’t want his freedom to be linked to nuclear negotiations or any other sort of swap that could put Americans’ lives in danger in the future, family members have expressed fear that any leverage could go out the window if Iran receives the concessions it seeks in a final deal.
Amir’s sister Sarah told PJM in March the family is “holding our breath” to see what happens at the negotiating table. If a deal is forged, “what incentive does Iran have anymore to keep them, so why not release them?” she mused.
But then again, if a deal is forged, “they’ve received everything they’re asking for and there’s no motivation to release them, either.”
“We’re terrified of this,” Sarah added.
The Hekmati family said in a statement today that Amir has been suffering from “recurring and serious health issues,” including “repeated lung infections resulting from solitary confinement.”
Amir’s father, Ali, has been suffering from terminal brain cancer and is aching to see his son one last time. Over the course of the past few weeks, as indicated by his specialists, Ali’s health has worsened and “his situation is dire.”
So today members of Amir’s family will fly from their home in Flint, Mich., to the United Kingdom. Their final stop: Vienna.
Joining the family will be Montel Williams, who has been advocating for the veteran’s release as well as the freedom of three other Americans held in Iran.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home.
Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.
Former FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator. Levinson’s family later received images of him in captivity, though the Iranian government has maintained they don’t know who is holding him.
The Hekmati family, said the statement, “sees an opportunity to secure Amir’s release: given Dr. Hekmati’s health situation, Iran’s efforts to reenter the international community, the fact that we are in the holy period of Ramadan and the comments of many, particularly in the U.S. Congress, that the release of Amir would help Iran reenter the international community and would help to pass a nuclear agreement. In a recent hearing by the United States Congress’ House Foreign Affairs Committee, several members of Congress called for Amir’s release and indicated that his release would be important if Iran wants to rejoin the international community.”
In that hearing, Sarah Hekmati stressed that they live in “constant fear for his health, his safety, and his life.”
“The fact that Amir is the first American to be sentenced to death by Iran since 1979 adds to our fears,” she said of the sentence that was ultimately commuted to 10 years. “The fact that he has been held in Evin prison longer than any other American in history is emotionally draining. We are physically and emotionally exhausted. We are sleepless. We are full of fear and anxiety. We need this nightmare to end.”
“He’s died a hundred times in this situation, so much so that he’s become numb. We want to be able to give him hope.”
The State Department has said that the release of the Americans is important, but not linked to nuclear talks.
“They’re not related. It doesn’t make us not want to get this resolved diplomatically any less than we already do. We clearly believe it’s important,” spokeswoman Marie Harf said in April. “Not as part of the nuclear talks. These are separate issues. We will continue raising [Rezaian's] case and the other two Americans who are detained, and Robert Levinson, who is missing. We’ll continue raising them, but they are not — they’re fates and the outcome of these cases should in no way be tied to the nuclear issue.”
In April, Amir dictated a letter to congressional leaders noting that while he’s “thankful that the State Department and the Obama administration has called for my release and that of my fellow Americans, there has been no serious response to this blatant and ongoing mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and they continue on with impunity.”
“As a war veteran who defended our nation in its time of need, I ask that you also work to defend my dignity and that of my fellow Americans by putting in place serious consequences for this serial hostage-taking and mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for clearly illegal purposes,” Amir said. “This has been going on far too long.”