As Obama administration officials lobbied for the Iran nuclear deal before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, the images of four Americans held in Iran stared back at them from the dais.
Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) taped photos of Marine vet Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini, reporter Jason Rezaian, and retired FBI agent Bob Levinson underneath his microphone.
“I put their pictures here to remind you of them today,” Duncan told Secretary of State John Kerry. “I understand not using them as pawns in negotiations, but what should have been — what should have happened is they should have been released as a precondition before ever sitting down with Iran for anything.”
The gesture was even more poignant as Hekmati turned 32 years old today in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison — his third straight birthday behind bars, on the 1,429th day of his imprisonment.
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.
The Flagstaff, Ariz., native had been working as a contractor after leaving the military and planned to study economics at the University of Michigan.
“I still can’t believe you are worlds away, celebrating yet another birthday behind the walls of Evin prison. Today you turn 32. It is your third birthday unjustly imprisoned in Iran. We have watched you move from your late twenties and into your thirties behind those prison walls – away from celebration, away from your family, and away from home. The last time I saw you, you were 28 years old,” his sister, Sarah, wrote in an open letter to Amir today.
“…It is hard to not let this day be overrun by the grief I feel not having you around, especially when our family needs you so much right now, but I will choose this day to honor you instead. Amir, you are a man of integrity. Your loyalty and strength of character are not in your words, but in your actions. And for those of us lucky enough to call you son, brother, uncle, or friend, it is truly our honor to have you be a part of our lives. Happy 32nd Birthday, Bro. We will not stop until you are home.”
The Hekmatis’ congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), said in a statement today that “too many birthdays and cherished moments with family have been missed as Amir continues to be caught up in a geopolitical struggle among nations.”
“There isn’t a day that goes by that a member of Congress doesn’t ask me about Amir’s condition and continued captivity. And it is impossible for any member of Congress to erase from our memory the fact that Iran continues to hold Amir and other innocent Americans,” Kildee said.
“I know that Congress will be watching Iran’s behavior very closely over the coming weeks, including if they take action to release Amir and the other innocent Americans it holds. Doing so would be a tangible demonstration to Congress and the world that Iran is serious about rejoining the global community.”
Kerry said at today’s hearing that his “last conversation with Foreign Minister Zarif and with the brother of the president was regarding the four people being held, four American citizens, and we have followed up on that conversation.”
“Since then, we are in direct conversations,” he added. “That’s all I’m going to say here today, that I hope that they will be returned to be with their families.”
Many lawmakers mentioned the U.S. hostages in their questions or remarks.
“Saeed Abedini, Hekmati, Rezaian, Levinson, when are they going to be free?” asked Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.).