President Obama was confronted directly about the U.S. hostages in Iran today as the deadline of the P5+1 nuclear talks has been extended to July 7.
At a press conference with visiting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, Obama was asked what he would say to the families of Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian and Bob Levinson if he went ahead and signed an agreement with Tehran without the release of U.S. hostages.
Amir Hekmati, a decorated Marine veteran who served in the Iraq war, was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.
Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. He is facing espionage charges.
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. He is the longest-held U.S. hostage in history.
“With respect to U.S. citizens, U.S. persons who were held in Iran, this is something that we continue to push hard on, irrespective of the nuclear deal. It’s a top priority for us to make sure that our people are treated fairly,” Obama said.
“And on the face of it, in the case of these individuals who’ve been held, they have not been and they are not being afforded the basic due process and legal rights that we afford visitors to our country. So we’re deeply concerned about it. We spend a lot of time pushing on it and we will continue to do so.”
The U.S. hostages have not just faced a lack of hospitality in Iran but torture, malnourishment, and a lack of medical care for injuries and illnesses suffered while in custody.
Obama added “there’s no lessening of the sense of urgency.”
“So when I talk to the families, we remind them of the fact that that is a mission that will continue and has been worked on consistently throughout their captivity,” he said.
“With respect to the larger issue of whether I trust the Iranian regime, as I’ve said before, there are deep-seated disagreements and divisions between the United States and Iran. And those aren’t going to go away overnight. The goal of the nuclear negotiations is not to rely on trust but to set up a verifiable mechanism where we are cutting off the pathways for Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in Friday remarks at the Center for a New American Security that “reaching a comprehensive deal will not alter our commitment to support those in Iran demanding greater respect for universal human rights and the rule of law.”
“And we continue to insist that Iran release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, and help us find Robert Levinson,” Blinken said.
Yet the State Department’s new Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014 released last week essentially supports Iran’s faulty reasoning for why the U.S. has no jurisdiction over the case of an American hostage.
The Iran section of the report also doesn’t refer to the U.S. hostages by name, though it names some Iranians who have likewise fallen victim to Iran’s judicial system.
It refers to Abedini and Hekmati as “dual citizen” prisoners, even though Hekmati was born in the United States and is considered a dual citizen only by Iranian law as his father was born in Iran.
As he knew Iran has been using this as a reason to tell the U.S. government they have no jurisdiction over the case, in March Hekmati wrote to the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, D.C., to make clear he is 100 percent American and renounce his Iranian citizenship.
The State Department report also didn’t mention the torture Hekmati has endured while behind bars, though it did detail abuses suffered by various Iranian prisoners.
At a briefing on the report last week with Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was asked why Abedini and Hekmati were simply referred to as “dual citizens” in the report.
“We generally don’t mention American citizens by name when we mention them in this report,” Malinowski said. “I think one reason for that is that the report cannot be a comprehensive listing of people, of individuals who are detained around the world under these circumstances. So what we try to do is to use the stories of the cases to illustrate larger human-rights problems.”
However, the Cuba section of the report does name U.S. citizen Alan Gross, who was released from custody in December after five years behind bars.
Members of the Hekmati family, along with veterans advocate Montel Williams, are currently in Vienna to lobby for Amir’s release in the city where nuclear negotiations are taking place.
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.