As the final nuclear deal with Iran was announced with concessions and trade-offs, four names were noticeably absent from the administration’s lips: Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini, Jason Rezaian, and Bob Levinson.
Families of the four had expressed trepidation in the weeks of negotiations leading up to the Vienna agreement. Would Iran feel generous in a new era of rapprochement? Or if Iran got what it wanted, would all leverage to gain the release of the American hostages could go out the window?
There was no sign today that Iran intended to release any of them.
“On the detained Americans, as I think most of you know every time we have a negotiation round with the Iranian’s we have on margin of those discussions about the detained Americans in Iran as well as our concerns about missing American, Robert Levinson. And both Secretary Kerry and myself, both separately and together, have had more than one conversation during the course of these — this negotiating round,” a senior administration official told reporters on a background call today.
“Secretary Kerry, in fact, had yet another conversation today with Minister [Javad] Zarif and their other people on the delegation that have close ties to other parts of the Iranian government with whom we speak as well. We believe very strongly that this is an opportunity for Iran to let the Americans come home.”
The official said they “certainly want to make sure that the treatment of Americans who are now being detained is the best until they get home, and that should be immediately.”
All of the Americans have suffered mistreatment including torture, malnourishment, and lack of medical care.
“And we are doing whatever we possibly can to get Americans home and we think that this is a moment where Iran has a really important opportunity to make a humanitarian gesture and bring the American home,” the official added of the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.
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 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 and had a closed-door hearing Monday while the final details of the agreement were being worked out.
Idaho pastor 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 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.
The Americans were not mentioned by President Obama nor John Kerry in their remarks.
Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, pleaded with lawmakers — who will begin reviewing the deal in a 60-day period that begins only after Congress has received all associated documents — to not leave her husband and the other Americans behind.
“With the announcement of a deal and yet silence as to the fate of Saeed and the other Americans held hostage in Iran, their fate lies now in the hands of Congress,” Naghmeh said in a statement. “I plead with each member of Congress to review the deal with our family at the forefront of their thoughts. Congress holds the key to bringing my husband home, to returning the father to my children.”
“My children have desperately missed the loving embrace of their father for the last three years of their lives. They have grown up almost half of their lives without their father. Please help us ensure the remainder of their childhood includes both a mother and a father.”
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the pastor’s home-state senator, said “the failure of the administration to secure the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, which should have been a simple task, even at the outset of negotiations, has been ignored despite the chorus of pleas to achieve this goal.”
The family of Hekmati said in a statement that they’re hopeful the compromise that forged the deal at some point “translates into a release for Amir.”
“Amir is an innocent man who traveled to Iran to visit family, yet there is no denying that his imprisonment has been prolonged pending an outcome in these negotiations. While Amir himself has said that he should not be part of any nuclear deal, his immediate release would demonstrate a strong gesture of good faith to the international community following the successful end of the negotiations and enhance any agreement’s prospects in the U.S. Congress,” the Hekmatis noted.
“This August will mark four years that Amir has languished behind the walls of Evin prison. We pray Amir does not reach this milestone. It is long past time that Amir be released to end his and our family’s suffering.”
Their congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), told CNN “Iran has to understand that for the world, the American people and the U.S. Congress to fully consider the merits of this agreement, they need to take a step towards the global community.”
“And one tangible way for them to demonstrate their seriousness on this matter is to release the innocent Americans they hold,” Kildee said. “So I think it’s an opportunity for us to call upon Iran to take that step and I hope they carefully consider that.”
The congressman spoke with Amir’s sister, Sarah Hekmati, this morning. “Obviously, they are tense. And there’s some reasons to be hopeful, and we’re holding on to that,” Kildee said.
Sarah told PJM in March the family was “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.
David Levinson told CNN today that his family “desperately” wants “our father home,” and they’re hoping the deal is “merely the beginning” of discussions between Washington and Tehran.
“Hopefully, this leads to my father’s case being a priority and being at the center of discussions from here on out. It needs to be a priority and they need to work together to bring him home,” he said.
“…Just on a humanitarian basis, please help us to find my father, to bring him home. My family is not political. We have no agenda beyond just finding my dad and making sure that he can live the rest of his life out in peace with my family and other loved ones.”
At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing today, the Levinsons’ congressman, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), issued a somber reminder to his colleagues: “All members of Congress should have these Americans in their thoughts as they review the terms of this agreement.”
Jason’s brother, Ali Rezaian, stressed that “the outcome of the nuclear deal does not change Jason’s cruel and illegal imprisonment for the past 356 days.”
“We are hopeful that with agreement now in place the Iranian courts will conclude this process swiftly and affirm Jason’s innocence so we can bring him home and make our family whole once again,” he said in a statement.
“It is important to remember that Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent, remains in an Iranian prison despite the international accord announced Tuesday on Iran’s nuclear program,” Post executive editor Martin Baron said.
Some members of Congress indicated that the U.S. hostages’ names will be heard on the Senate and House floors as the lawmakers debate the deal.
“I think that should have been a precondition for even starting these negotiations, that every American who is being held hostage by Iran should have been released,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said.
“President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said. “I expect that a significant majority in Congress will share my skepticism of this agreement and vote it down.”