Yellow Ribbon Project

Kerry Says He Didn't Want to Threaten Nuclear Agreement with U.S. Hostage Negotiations

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Secretary of State John Kerry reacted to the news of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian’s reported conviction by stressing that he didn’t want the American hostages in Iran to adversely affect the nuclear deal or vice versa.

The Iranian state TV report late Sunday didn’t detail the conviction — the charges were “espionage, collaboration with hostile governments, gathering classified information and disseminating propaganda against the Islamic Republic” — but quoted judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejeie saying that the California native could appeal within 20 days or “the verdict will become final.”

Rezaian, who has reported from Tehran since 2008, was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home. His wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian who reported in Tehran for the UAE newspaper The National, was released on bail last October.

Marine vet Amir Hekmati has been held more than four years, Idaho pastor Saeed Abedini has been held for more than three years, and retired FBI agent Bob Levinson has been missing in Iran and held by unknown captors for more than eight years.

Just a week ago, the intelligence arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps issued a report stating that Rezaian “has had the duty to exercise the thoughts of those people in the US Senate who believe that if the US can revive its pre-Revolution relations with Iran, the Iranian government can be overthrown easily.”

The next day, the semi-official Fars News Agency reported about a dozen Iranian lawmakers charged that Rezaian ran U.S. intelligence operations in the Islamic Republic.

The State Department issued no statement on the report that Rezaian had been convicted, but Kerry was asked about the journalist today at a Boston news conference with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and their Australian counterparts.

Kerry insisted that “not a meeting went by, literally not a meeting, where we did not raise the issue of our citizens who are being held in Iran.”

The State Department has previously said the hostages were raised on the sidelines of the P5+1 nuclear talks. Wendy Sherman, who led the U.S. negotiating team, told NPR a few days ago that the Americans held by Iran were kept on “a separate track…on the margins of the negotiations” as “none of us wanted to fold this into the nuclear negotiation.”

The administration has pushed back on the argument of many lawmakers that the release of the Americans should have occurred before the U.S. met Iran at the nuclear negotiating table.

“And clearly, we are tracking extremely closely the news coming out of Iran regarding the trial and the fact of a conviction,” Kerry continued today.

“We still don’t know and we haven’t seen any official confirmation on that verdict whatsoever, and we are continuing a dialogue with the Iranians regarding our citizens, and we will until they come home. So I’m not going to, you know, go backwards except to say that the families themselves of these hostages knew exactly what our strategy was and why it was important not to hold a nuclear agreement hostage to hostages, and in our judgment, it was the right thing to do because it could have complicated both significantly and perhaps have resulted in nothing happening on either.”

Kerry added that “it was the right strategy to pursue.”

“We are continuing, as I say, that dialogue and we call on the government of Iran, whether they’ve had a conviction, with sentence or no sentence, whatever the status is, we call on the government of Iran to release these individuals, to drop all the charges, and to see them reunited with their families here in the United States,” he said.

Kerry then confidently added, “I can assure you when they do return and people gain full knowledge on the efforts that have been made, nobody will see anything except an extraordinary, continued… focused, intensive effort to secure their release.”

At the White House, press secretary Josh Earnest said there’s “not much clarity” about Rezaian’s case, and “it’s not particularly surprising that the situation is unclear, because the entire proceedings against him have been opaque, and that has been a principal concern that we’ve articulated with his unjust detention.”

“Throughout this process, there has been an unwillingness on the part of the Iranians to be candid about what their intentions are,” Earnest said. “And in fact, what is clear is that their intention is to continue to detain him unjustly, and that is something that we are quite concerned about, in the same way that we’re quite concerned about the unjust detention of Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini inside of Iran.”

“We also have concerns about the whereabouts of the U.S. citizen Robert Levinson, who was last known to be inside of Iran, but we’ve not gotten cooperation from the Iranians in trying to — that we would like to get to determine Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts. So we’ve got a number of concerns, and the lack of clarity around this particular situation is not surprising, in fact it’s consistent with the kind of sham process that they’ve been running over there for several years now.”

Over at the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner said they “just haven’t gotten any officially confirmation of the verdict or specific charges or any further information.”

“I’d have to go back and — and look at whether we have specific information about the charge filed against him, but I believe we did. But we haven’t seen any kind of, you know, here’s what he is being charged for, here’s what he verdict is. We’ve just seen, as I said, reports that — that he was convicted without any kind of follow up,” Toner said. “…Everybody from the U.S. government who has interactions with the Iranians have consistently raised these cases.”

Iran is thought to be seeking the release of some of its people being held by the United States in a swap of sorts for one of more of the Americans.

Hekmati heard this from his jailers early in his captivity, and smuggled a letter to Kerry in 2013 asking him to not do it. “I had nothing to do with their arrest, committed no crime, and see no reason why the U.S. Government should entertain such a ridiculous proposition,” wrote Hekmati.