Secretary of State John Kerry closed out the last round of nuclear talks in Vienna with a seven-month extension for Iran and assertions that Tehran is a viable negotiating partner that has met its commitments.
“We want to terminate the sanctions. Yes, we want to terminate the sanctions which were put in place to get us to these negotiations and ultimately to be able to bring about a deal,” Kerry told reporters before flying out of Austria.
“And I would say to those who are skeptical, those who wonder whether we should rush ahead down a different course, I believe the United States and our partners have earned the benefit of the doubt at this point,” Kerry continued. “Many were quick to say that the Joint Plan of Action would be violated; it wouldn’t hold up, it would be shredded. Many said that Iran would not hold up its end of the bargain. Many said that the sanctions regime would collapse. But guess what? The interim agreement wasn’t violated.”
“Iran has held up its end of the bargain.”
Yet Iran still holds four Americans.
Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent and father of seven, was working as a private detective on a cigarette smuggling case on Kish Island, an Iranian resort port in the Persian Gulf with looser entrance requirements, when he disappeared on March 8, 2007. Later reports indicated he was contracting for the CIA.
A year ago he became the longest held U.S. hostage in history, passing Terry Anderson’s 2,454 days in captivity at the hands of Hezbollah before being freed in 1991.
In January, his wife, Christine Levinson, released photos the family had received from his captors nearly two years earlier. She did so because “there isn’t any pressure on Iran to resolve this.”
Flagstaff, Ariz., native and Marine veteran Amir Hekmati was seized by the Iranian government in August 2011 while on a trip, with proper visa documents from the Iranian government, to visit relatives in Tehran. He was originally sentenced to death in a quickie trial on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage, retried and sentenced to 10 years behind bars for “collaborating” with the U.S. government.
In March, his mother, Behnaz Hekmati, wrote to President Obama for help, noting that her family “is constantly reminded” by government officials that her son’s case “is being raised, but there has been no real progress.”
“Amir was taken from me nearly three years ago, falsely accused of being a spy and sentenced to death. That sentence was later overturned due to a lack of evidence, yet still he languishes. This is a historic time for Iran and the United States,” she wrote. “I plead that you do not forget Amir, his service, his beautiful smile and his zeal for life.”
This September, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini marked two years behind bars in Iran.
After Abedini’s 2012 arrest by Iranian authorities, he was convicted in January 2013 for crimes against the national security of Iran, a charge tied to his involvement many years earlier with establishing Christian house churches. Sentenced to eight years behind bars, Abedini has endured torture and is in ill health.
In June, his wife, Nagmeh, told PJM that her family’s relationship with the State Department and White House in trying to secure her husband’s release has been “complicated.”
“At times I’ve felt Saeed has been abandoned,” she said.
And after Iran received its first nuke-talks extension — a four-month stretch that ended on Monday — Tehran grabbed another American.
Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, a dual citizen through his father’s Iranian heritage, and his Iranian wife, Yeganeh Salehi, who works for The National newspaper out of the UAE, were arrested by Iran in July. His wife has been released, but Rezaian is still being held without charge or explanation. Officials have vaguely said he violated state security.
Because Iran hasn’t filed charges, the American hasn’t been able to consult with a lawyer. He’s been held in solitary confinement and reportedly needs blood-pressure medication as well as treatment for a severe eye infection.
Hekmati, Abedini, and Rezaian are all being held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
All four families, including the Levinsons, face another Thanksgiving without their families as Washington talks sanctions relief for the Islamic Republic. Iran has already gotten about $10 billion in relief since talks began.
The last time the State Department mentioned the Americans held by Iran was the day before Halloween. That was the 100-day mark for Rezaian’s detention.
“That is 100 days too long. We echo the appeals of his family and friends and repeat our call for his immediate release so that he can be reunited with his loved ones,” press secretary Jen Psaki said. “We also call for the release of U.S. citizens Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, and again ask the Iranian authorities for their cooperation in finding Robert Levinson.”
Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, in his nomination hearing last week to be deputy secretary of State, was questioned by Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) about the fate of his constituent, Abedini.
“There is absolutely no reason he should be in prison in Iran,” Risch said, stressing that it “absolutely escaped logic” that the U.S. loosened the purse strings on sanctions while Iran still held the Americans.
If the U.S. does get close to a deal with Iran, the senator said, their release should be a condition of any agreement.
“This thing doesn’t become operative until those people walk free,” Risch said. “I urge you in the strongest terms to see that those people are turned loose.”
Blinken responded that “every single day we are working for the release of Mr. Abedini but also any other American around the world.”
He said the topic of the American prisoners has been on the “margins of conversations” at the nuclear negotiations.
“This is something that we are determined to resolve,” Blinken said, vowing that “if confirmed this will be at the top of my agenda.”
Risch said they seem to forget the “human component” of these detained Americans “that never gets talked about.”
And while the senator appreciates the administration’s claims that they’re on the case, “I’ll be much happier when actual action takes place,” he said.
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the Abedini family, wrote Monday that Abedini was “not completely abandoned” as Iran wasn’t “rewarded with a nuclear deal while it continues to imprison and torment a U.S. citizen.”
“Second, the reports indicate that there will be no lull in the negotiations; they will continue as soon as next month. That means now continues to be a critical time to pressure Iran to release Pastor Saeed,” Sekulow wrote.
“We can’t trust Iran as it violates Pastor Saeed’s human rights. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry must use this new extension of time to demand Pastor Saeed’s freedom.”
In September, Hekmati’s sister and brother-in-law went to the 69th UN General Assembly to ask members of the P5+1 for help.
Among the nations negotiating with Iran on its nuclear program, Sarah Hekmati told PJM at the time that Germany responded to her request and talked with her a bit to hear the family’s story.
Sarah said that when they were leaving for New York, her 4-year-old daughter asked if “we’re going to rescue her uncle.”
“It’s a roller coaster,” she said. “We obviously wake up every day in disbelief that this is real.”