Iran briefly held 10 American sailors in custody this week, and the Obama administration has been boasting of its diplomatic channels with Iran in securing their quick release.
“The outcome, as we all saw, was that these sailors, 14 hours after they were picked up in Iranian waters, were released unharmed with their boats,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest, brushing off footage released by Iran showing the sailors kneeling with their hands over their heads and apologizing under duress.
“So I do think that the kind of diplomatic engagement that the president has aggressively pursued in the face of blistering criticism from our critics, has I think quite clearly shown how it advances our national security interests to pursue the approach that the president has,” Earnest said.
But that same diplomatic engagement has done nothing to bring home longtime American captives held by Iran.
Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, a Flagstaff, Ariz., native, 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 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.
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.
Earnest was asked at today’s White House briefing if President Obama would call on Iran to release these Americans.
“I don’t have any presidential phone calls to preview for you and I’m not aware of any current plans for president to telephone his Iranian counterpart,” Earnest replied. “As it relates to those Americans who are currently and unjustly held by Iran, we have in the context these nuclear negotiations — Secretary Kerry made clear that every time he met with his counterpart to discuss their nuclear program, he also made it a point to raise our ongoing concerns with — about these Americans who are being unjustly detained.”
“And that’s an indication that we’ve made this a priority,” he added. “You’ve heard the president talk about how this issue is quite personal to him. I don’t have an update for you of our ongoing efforts to secure their release, but we certainly believe strongly and have made it a priority to tell the Iranians that we’re ready for our American citizens who are being unjustly detained in Iran to be released.”
The Obama administration is barreling toward implementation day, when sanctions will be relieved on Iran for taking steps in its nuclear program.
“We have always made clear that we would not and it would not be in the best interest of those unjustly detained Americans to make their cases somehow contingent on this nuclear agreement. That’s not going to make it easier to get them — to bring them home,” Earnest said.
“We continue to have — to make a strong case to the Iranians that these Americans are being unjustly detained in their country and that they should be released. We’ve made clear that, that’s a priority and it will continue to be until their brought home.”
For the second year in a row, the Hekmati family’s congressman, Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), asked Obama to say the names of the hostages in his State of the Union address.
For the second year in a row, Obama did not.
“While we are disappointed that President Obama didn’t say Amir’s name, the kindness, compassion, and spirit in which we were received tonight among people on both sides of the political divide touched our hearts and means so much to our family,” said Amir’s sister Sarah Hekmati in a statement after the address. “We also want to take a moment and thank all of you for your continued thoughts and prayers today as we advocated on Amir’s behalf. You all continue to be beacons of hope for us as we trudge on until Amir is finally home.”