The family of a Marine veteran imprisoned by Iran for 1,340 days was on Capitol Hill today along with Montel Williams to introduce a new congressional resolution on U.S. hostages and to plead the Obama administration to act.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) represents the hometown of decorated Iraq war vet Amir Hekmati, who was seized by Iranian authorities in August 2011 and is held in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Kildee’s resolution has five original co-sponsors: Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Amir’s sister Sarah, brother-in-law Ramy Kurdi, and Williams made the rounds after a morning press conference to meet with lawmakers and pick up congressional support. Via Twitter, they announced that Reps. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) and Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) were among those who signed on to the bill.
The resolution, which is not attached to any other bill and is non-binding, expresses “the sense of the House of Representatives that Iran should immediately release the three United States citizens that it holds, as well as provide all known information on any United States citizens that have disappeared within its borders.”
Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian, a California native who reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home and faces espionage charges. Idaho resident Saeed Abedini was convicted in January 2013 for establishing Christian house churches. Retired FBI agent Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator.
“Iran cannot be taken seriously as a member of the global community if they continue to hold innocent Americans like Amir Hekmati as political prisoners,” Kildee said. “Amir is an American citizen, born and raised in the U.S., who served his country honorably in the U.S. Marines. He is innocent yet has been unjustly held as a political prisoner by Iran for 1,340 days. This congressional resolution allows Congress to speak with one voice and say that Iran must release the innocent Americans it holds.”
Williams, who served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, got choked up as he appealed for Amir’s release at the morning presser.
“This young man that’s there, 1,340 days, he is there because he wore the uniform to protect us, to allow us to be here and have the freedoms that we have. How dare we turn a back on him right now when we see ships on the horizon heading in a way that may send us all into harm’s way again?” Williams said.
“Let this country understand, we love you, we respect you, we will put our lives on the line for you. Defend us, that’s all we’re asking. Bring this young man home. I look to our commander-in-chief. You look to him as the president, I look to him as that fictional six-star general. The same applies for him. We leave no soldier behind.”
Sarah Hekmati said she hopes to meet with White House officials this week. President Obama has never said Amir’s name in public, and ABC News reported that the Marine was taunted by his Iranian prison guards after Obama only mentioned Rezaian at last weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
“He has already been mistreated, abused, and tortured,” Sarah wrote to White House counter-terrorism advisor Lisa Monaco. “Now the mental torture continues as he is made to feel that the country he put his life on the line for, the one he defended, and the president he voted for has left him behind and are not actively trying to secure his freedom.”
“Why has President Obama yet to utter the name Amir Hekmati? Why on days significant for Amir — Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, the anniversary of his death sentence, the anniversary of his imprisonment — President Obama cannot say the name Amir Hekmati out loud, but he can say it for Jason Rezaian and he can say it for Pastor Abedini? Why when we make a request is it ignored? Why am I forced to write this email to you AGAIN, the same subject AGAIN, the same plea AGAIN?”
White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied at Monday’s press briefing that “when considering how best to secure the release of these individuals, a calculation is made about the wisdom of the publicity that surrounds the efforts to secure their release.”
“So, in each case, a different calculation is made, but I can just say as a general matter what the president said about Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post reporter that’s currently detained in Iran, also applied to those other Americans, which is that the president and the U.S. government is prepared to go to great lengths to secure their release,” Earnest said.
He added that “our hearts go out to families who are in this terrible situation” as “they’re obviously, and justifiably, very concerned about the safety and well-being of their loved one.”
Earnest maintained that the nuclear deal with the P5+1 needs to be reached first because “it would only be harder to secure the release of these American citizens if Iran had a nuclear weapon at their disposal.”
“They can be assured that there are individuals in the Obama administration and in the U.S. government who go to bed every night worried about the well being of their loved ones as well,” he said of the families, who have voiced mounting frustration with the White House and State Department as the detentions drag on interminably.
But Earnest made clear on Wednesday that the White House is not prepared to support any conditions that would require the release of Americans to make a deal with Iran final.
Sen. Roy Blunt’s (R-Mo.) amendment proposed for the bill that unanimously passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requiring congressional approval of any Iran deal, would also require the unconditional release of Americans held by Tehran.
Earnest said the amendment “certainly would interfere with the ongoing negotiations between the international community and Iran on their nuclear program” and thus trigger a presidential veto.
“I’m confident that there would be strong support — or I guess strong opposition to those kinds of amendments,” he added. “And then that opposition would — I would expect it to be bipartisan.”
Some on the Hill are lumping the Blunt amendment among “poison pill” amendments they don’t want attached to the Corker-Menendez bill.
“Iran must release the four Americans it currently holds hostage. I think everyone in this body would agree that these are legitimate concerns for our consideration,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in a Tuesday floor speech. “Yet the truth remains that they are outside the scope of the current negotiations around Iran’s nuclear program, and Congress must resist the temptation to make them a sticking point in those negotiations by including them amendments to this bill.”
“There are aspects of amendments that are pending that I would embrace in a New York minute,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. “But I believe that some of these amendments, no matter how much I support the concept, would break apart a bipartisan coalition that’s taken a year to form.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, which is representing the Abedini family, lashed out at the White House veto threat: “That is simply unbelievable. Refusing to discuss the Americans being held hostage by Iran at the bargaining table and rejecting any congressional attempt to make any deal with Iran contingent on the release of the Americans is unacceptable. It’s quite frankly appalling… This is despicable. This is outrageous. And it is an insult to the captive Americans and their families.”
“In your address on April 2nd you stated, ‘These are matters of war and peace, and they should be evaluated based on facts and what is ultimately best for the American people.’ The fact is that my husband, who is being held simply because of his Christian faith, and the 3 other wrongfully held U.S. citizens are Americans and they need to be released,” Saeed’s wife, Naghmeh, recently wrote to Obama.
“Mr. President, as the US continues its negotiations with Iran, will you please demand the immediate release of Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Robert Levinson, and my husband, Pastor Saeed Abedini – this direct ask needs to be priority front and center not pushed to the sidelines. These Americans deserve to be freed and returned to their families immediately.”
Amir pleaded to Congress in a letter dictated from prison recently for help, arguing that “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 wrote. “This has been going on far too long.”