When President Obama takes the lectern tonight to deliver his final State of the Union address, he’ll have more than the faces of House and Senate members staring back at him.
In the audience will be family members of Americans who have been held for years by Iran with little progress in their quests to home.
With the one guest ticket each member of Congress is allotted, Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) invited Ali Rezaian, brother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who was seized on July 22, 2014, in a raid on his home and convicted of espionage in a closed-door trial last year. Jason, who was born in California to an Iranian father, reported from Tehran since 2008.
And Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) is bringing his constituent Sarah Hekmati, sister of Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native who was visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011 when he was seized and sentenced on trumped-up espionage charges.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) gave his guest ticket to Amir’s brother-in-law, Ramy Kurdi. The House agreed that Hekmati and Kurdi can sit together during the address.
“The House of Representatives has been adamant that we must secure his release,” Kildee and Salmon said in a joint statement. “It is our hope that bringing renewed national attention to Amir’s imprisonment will not only keep him in the nation’s prayers, but renew our diplomatic efforts to secure his release.”
Sarah told PJM on Friday that the family’s nearly 5-year cycle of cautious optimism is currently hinging on a news report in Iran suggesting that Amir could be eligible soon for conditional release. But that would require approval from the prosecuting attorney’s office.
And in a case that has seen peaks and valleys of publicity for the Marine, Sarah feels the homefront battle is critical: making sure that Amir doesn’t get “sidetracked” as the administration barrels toward the Iran deal implementation day and Congress raises ire over Iran’s ballistic missile tests.
“Until he’s home it’s never good enough for our family,” she said of administration efforts to get Amir released. “I keep being assured that it’s a top priority. I’m not seeing the benefits of it yet. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
If this administration does’t “take the opportunity” to seize on more open dialogue with Tehran to secure the release of Americans, “it becomes the next administration’s problem,” she noted.
“I can hear the anguish in Amir’s voice when he calls,” Sarah said of the phone calls home that he’s been allowed. “It’s not optimism anymore. It’s ‘what it is going to take to get me out of here.'”
She added that she’s not even able to reassure Amir anymore that the end of his imprisonment is coming soon.
Meanwhile, their father, college professor Ali Hekmati, is suffering from a brain tumor and is in stroke rehab to help him do the most basic functions. He holds “an almost childlike optimism” that he’ll get to hold his son again before he passes away, “and I want him to hold on to that,” Sarah said.
Sarah and Ramy are also raising a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old in the midst of campaigning for Amir and occasional travel to places like New York, D.C. and Europe to lobby for his release.
The children sometimes ask her “how much longer, Mom” before their uncle comes home.
Kildee sent a letter to Obama last year asking that Amir’s name be brought up during the primetime address. The president did not.
Kildee is renewing that request this year.
“It is important that Amir and the other innocent Americans being held not be forgotten,” the congressman said in a statement. “They should be household names in America – we must say their names as often as we can. The State of the Union address would be an opportunity to articulate the importance of Iran releasing these innocent Americans.”
And if Obama again doesn’t say Amir’s name? “It’s going to hurt,” Sarah admitted, “but I am keeping my expectations low and guarded.”
“Either way, it’s still a win-win for me,” she added, stressing that the presence of hostages’ families there will make a statement.
Sarah said Amir’s health right now is “not good.”
“He’s been dealing with recurring chronic symptoms, different health concerns,” she said. After “much persistence” he was taken to a hospital to have a general evaluation done, where chest infection and other maladies were revealed.
Her main concern is for her brother’s “mental and emotional well-being.”
“He sounds downtrodden more than ever,” Sarah said. “I can hear the anguish in his voice.”
Kildee was able to catch Obama on the House floor for a brief moment at last year’s speech to press Amir’s case. Obama’s response: “I’m working on it.”
Sarah said if she got the opportunity to personally press Obama on Amir’s case, she’d say: “If this is a priority like you say it is, when my brother calls tomorrow can I reassure him that he’s going to be home? Can I tell him that?”
“I just want us to continuously refresh the minds and the memories of people working on this… our family is hurting and we can’t do this alone.”
Support for the Hekmatis has come from strangers, including a class of schoolkids in Ohio who sent a stack of letters for Amir and get-well cards for Ali.
“It’s refreshing to get letters from people saying they’re praying for us,” she said, adding that the family is “humbled by the sense of humanity” of these well-wishers, including veterans who have walked for Amir and raised his case in the media.
“We need that because it helps us hold on to hope.”
In addition to Amir Hekmati and Jason Rezaian, 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 in March 2007 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.
Since the Iran nuclear deal was inked last year, two more Americans have been arrested by Iran: IT expert Nizar Zakka and businessman Siamak Namazi.
Amir served in the Iraq War and was honorably discharged as a sergeant in 2005. He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War of Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and Sea Service Deployment Ribbon. Marine colleagues have symbolically joined Amir in rolling hunger strikes out of Semper Fi solidarity.
He dictated a letter to members of Congress over the phone last year, advocating for those currently suffering at the hands of Iran and those who may be seized in the future.
“While I am thankful that the State Department and the Obama administration have called for my release and that of my fellow Americans, there has been no serious response to this blatant and ongoing mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, and they continue on with impunity,” Amir wrote.
“As a war veteran who defended our nation in its time of need, I ask that you also work to defend my dignity and that of my fellow Americans by putting in place serious consequences for this serial hostage-taking and mistreatment of Americans by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence for clearly illegal purposes. This has been going on far too long.”