Four relatives representing all of the American hostages in Iran made an unprecedented appearance before a congressional committee today, telling lawmakers that they fear leverage slipping away as the Obama administration barrels toward its June 30 nuclear deadline with Tehran.
Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. His brother, Ali, spoke for his family today, a photo of Jason and their mom propped on the witness table as well as an Oakland A’s hat. Both are California natives with an Iranian-born father.
Sarah Hekmati, sister of U.S. Marine vet Amir Hekmati, spoke for the Arizona native who was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 and convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Nagameh Abedini, who has previously testified before Congress on threats to religious freedom, advocated for her husband, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini. He was convicted in January 2013 of establishing Christian house churches while in the country to set up a government-sanctioned orphanage.
Daniel Levinson testified on behalf of his father, Bob Levinson. The former FBI agent 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.
Rezaian has been held in Iranian custody for 316 days. Abedini has been held 1,050 days. Hekmati has been held 1,373 days. Levinson has been missing for 3,008 days — the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.
“This is a great hearing, but in a few days people may forget about it — they’ll likely forget about it — and then we’re back to where we were,” Daniel Levinson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The Florida family worries that “regardless of the outcome of the deal” there may not be “a sense of urgency to get any of the loved ones home.”
Then, Levinson noted, they’re “back to square one.”
Noting that the hearing was the first such opportunity her family had received to address Congress in the nearly four years her brother has been languishing in Evin prison, 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.”
Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), who also chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, noted the charges under which Hekmati remains behind bars, including “corrupting the Earth” and “being an enemy of God.”
“What kind of charge is that?” McCaul exclaimed. “We should halt these negotiations until these prisoners are released. American hostages should be the priority, not placed on the sidelines.”
The Hekmatis’ congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), was allowed to participate in hearing though he doesn’t sit on the committee. After the hearing, the committee passed without objection Kildee’s bipartisan resolution calling for the immediate release of all Americans held in Iran.
“It’s really important that this Congress speaks with one unified voice,” Kildee said, as Iran is “holding innocent Americans guilty of nothing but being American.”
“I hope, for all members, we look at this as a personal mission.”
Ali Rezaian said that “while in prison, Jason has suffered painful and debilitating infections, and he has lost more than 40 pounds.”
“He also has chronic high blood pressure and a respiratory condition that is exacerbated during the hot summer months in Tehran. He is often kept in solitary confinement, and allowed only minimal human interaction,” Ali continued. “My brother has been in prison for offenses that he did not commit for nearly a year.”
Lawmakers who either knew these cases intimately or were hearing from family members for the first time were alternately angry, frustrated and emotional as they learned the stories behind the names.
“It’s important that we hear these stories,” Kildee said. “It’s important that the American people hear the names.”
Naghmeh Abedini, who hasn’t been able to speak with her husband since his conviction years ago, fears for not only whether he’ll be able to come home but how he’ll be after returning to his family.
“His mental condition is my biggest worry even though his physical condition is not very well,” she said, adding that the pastor has been told by his jailers “he will never come out unless he renounces his faith.” Which he refuses to do.
“Where’s the action? Where’s the result? Iran continues to shrug it off and not really respond to our discussion on the sidelines,” Naghmeh said of the administration’s assertion that it brings up the cases of the Americans on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations. “Help bring my husband home before you consent to any deal.”
“I appreciate ‘raising at every meeting’ but the time has come to turn up the pressure,” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) said.
“The administration must realize that while it expresses niceties to Iran the regime continues to imprison U.S. citizens and violate their human rights,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) said he hopes the administration pays attention to the “real lives, real pain” of the family members.
“For the administration to be negotiating with these thugs … is just real foolishness,” Weber said. “I think Congress should get real serious: no agreement period until Iran releases the hostages. I just hope John Kerry wakes up and understands the dilemma before us today.”
“This is unconscionable that we would be dealing with a regime like that. If our president and secretary of State would pay attention and make this an issue then we might be able to bring your loved ones home soon.”
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), noting that President Obama “wants a deal more than life itself,” said “the very least we can do is say any deal is dead without the release of these prisoners.”
“The only thing that bullies understand is a punch in the nose and that’s how I think we need to deal with Iran,” he added.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) noted the saturation of media coverage for Natalee Holloway, the American teen who went missing in Aruba 10 years ago. “Where’s the attention for their loved ones?” Duncan said of the panel.
But some of the sharpest words came from Democratic Ranking Member Eliot Engel (N.Y.), who highlighted Kildee’s commitment to the Americans by noting there’s “not a moment” the Michigan Dem isn’t stopping colleagues to rally support for the hostages.
“This is the time to really bring forward the cases of your loved ones,” Engel told the witnesses. “I feel so angry that at a time when we are sitting with Iran …to discuss a new arrangement between our two countries and they continue to poke us in the eye and continue to spit in our face. It’s just infuriating and outrageous that they would do this.”
The congressman said the nation needs to “be as riveted with your loved ones” as it was during the 1979 hostage crisis “so they can come home safely.”
“It’s ludicrous for us to pretend it’s business as usual… we’re all going to hold hands and skip away happily as Americans are rotting in prison.”