State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf stressed today that there’s no need to align the demand that four Americans be returned home with the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that the captivity of Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abedini and Bob Levinson is separate from the P5+1 talks. But with Iran poised to receive what it wants in a final deal, what leverage is left to compel Tehran to release the American hostages?
Washington Post bureau chief Rezaian, a California native who reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. His wife, Yeganeh Salehi, a reporter for UAE English-language newspaper The National, was also detained and released in October. Word came this month that Rezaian will go on trial for espionage charges.
Marine vet Hekmati was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011, Abedini was convicted in January 2013 for establishing Christian house churches, and 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 the former FBI agent.
“So we are still not aware of any official announcement yet from Iranian judicial authorities. I understand these reports are coming from his lawyer. We have seen the reports, of course, from his lawyer and others that he has been charged with espionage and other security related charges,” Harf told reporters today of the Rezaian case.
“If the reports are true, these charges are, as we’ve said in the past, patently absurd. He should immediately be freed so he can return to his family. The charges should immediately be dismissed. But again, no confirmation official from Iranian judicial authorities.”
Harf didn’t know whether Rezaian had been visited by the Swiss, representing U.S. interests in Tehran, or whether he could renounce the Iranian citizenship conferred upon him by his father’s place of birth.
Iran has claimed that the U.S. has no say over Hekmati and Rezaian, both born in the United States, because of their Iranian fathers.
Hekmati, who was originally sentenced to death and is now serving a 10-year sentence in fetid conditions for conspiracy to commit espionage, renounced that Iranian dual citizenship and asked that he be deported back to the country of his birth, America.
“My Iranian heritage and affinity for the Iranian people will always be a part of me, but I wish to have no ties to an organization that places so little value on my human rights and dignity and is willing to destroy an entire family for simple propaganda purposes,” Hekmati wrote in a recent letter to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington.
“The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Mrs. Afkham, has stated that there are no Americans in Iran; however, it is precisely for the reason that I am American that I have been taken hostage by the Ministry of Intelligence and used as a political bargaining tool. Having been born in the US and having spent my entire life there, my citizenship status is clear.”
Of Rezaian’s dual citizenship, Harf said today, “regardless of that specific fact, and I just don’t know the answers there, these charges that he’s allegedly been charged with are just absurd, as I said. And he should be freed immediately.”
Harf said they “always raise…in every round” of nuclear talks the cases of the four Americans.
“They really are separate issues,” she responded when asked whether Iran’s refusal to return the hostages gives the administration pause about “going full throttle ahead with the negotiations.”
“So 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,” Harf continued. “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.”
Iran Parliament Judicial Commission Mohammad member Hossein Farhangi said “no international body can prevent Iran from investigating the offenses committed in the country” in regards to Rezaian’s case, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency last week.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Hekmati’s district, noted today that “unfortunately, Iran has a long history of imprisoning Americans on false charges.”
“This includes innocent Americans like my constituent, Amir Hekmati, an American citizen and U.S. Marine who continues to be held as a political prisoner after being arrested on espionage charges. Today’s charges against Jason Rezaian, and similar charges previously imposed on Amir, are unequivocally untrue,” Kildee said.
“Iran has repeatedly said it wants to rejoin the global community. Yet I simply cannot fathom how this is possible if they continue to hold American political prisoners under false pretenses.”