Release of Americans Not in Iran Deal; State Dept. Says 'Their Freedom Should Not be Tied' to Talks

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A State Department official told PJM today that U.S. demands for the return of three Americans held by Iran and one missing in Iran are not in the framework nuclear agreement.

In fact, the administration intends on keeping the return of the U.S. citizens separate from any deal, even though it says their cases have been brought up on the sidelines of the talks.

Decorated Marine veteran Amir Hekmati was seized while visiting extended family for the first time in August 2011. Saeed Abedini was convicted in January 2013 for establishing Christian house churches. Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian has been held without any notification of the charges against him since July. Bob Levinson went missing off the coast of Iran eight years ago while working as a private investigator; his family later received images of him in captivity.

Secretary of State John Kerry was asked about the fate of the Americans during his press conference on the Iran deal in Switzerland today.

"With respect to our citizens, we, of course, have had a number of conversations, and no meeting, no date when we come together has been without conversation about our American citizens," Kerry replied. "I'm not going to go into any details except to say to you that that conversation is continuing. We have a very specific process in place to try to deal with it."

"And we call on Iran again today, now, in light of this, to release these Americans and let them get home with their families. And we're working on that, and we will continue to be very focused on it."

A State Department official reiterated to PJM later in the day that “we will continue to call on Iran to immediately release detained U.S. citizens Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini, and to work cooperatively with us to locate Robert Levinson, so that all can be returned to their families as soon as possible."

"We have raised these cases repeatedly with Iranian officials and will continue to do so until they are all home," the official said. "But we have been very clear that our discussions with Iran about our concerns over these American citizens are a separate issue from the nuclear talks."

"These U.S. citizens should be returned to their families independently of political negotiations with Iran; their freedom should not be tied to the outcome of these negotiations.‎”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) noted in his statement of disapproval of the framework agreement today that "Iran continues to hold multiple Americans hostage." Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), the Levinson family's congressman, said he greets "any deal with Iran with great skepticism given its deceptive history and ongoing destabilizing and dangerous activities."

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents the Hekmati family, called the nuclear agreement "a positive step towards ensuring Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon, and I look forward to seeing a full and enforceable framework."

"However, no agreement with Iran can be taken seriously if it continues to hold political prisoners like Amir Hekmati hostage," Kildee said. "Amir has committed no crime, yet he continues to languish in Evin Prison. If Iran is serious about rejoining the global community – as it claims – it would release Amir and other political prisoners today.”

Amir's sister, Sarah, told PJM recently that in September the family was “really excited” that her brother's case was reportedly moving up to the country’s supreme court for review. But then in November, nuclear talks were extended by several months “and Amir’s case was completely dropped.”

Sarah said the family was “holding our breath” to see what happens at the negotiating table in Switzerland, with myriad scenarios running through their minds for Amir and the other hostages.

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.

In a December letter to President Obama, Amir stated he was “deeply concerned that my future has become tied to the nuclear negotiations with Iran, with which I have no connection, influence or leverage.”

“I can draw no other conclusion, as each opportunity for a legal or humanitarian remedy is ignored, delayed or denied,” he wrote. “…My punishment has already far exceeded the charges brought against me, charges that I continue to contest to no avail. I know that the climate between the United States and Iran is delicate. But I should not fall victim to it.”

The Hekmati family released a statement tonight noting "now that Iran has sat at the table next to the United States, working diligently to come to an agreement for a nuclear program, we ask Iran if they still consider the United States a hostile country and if they do not, perhaps it is time they open the prison gates and allow the Red Cross to visit Amir without guard and report on the status of his well-being." He's serving 10 years for cooperating with a hostile government – his native country, the United States.

Continued the family statement:

"We call on them to show the international community that they are serious about their intentions and as an act of good faith, return Amir to his dying father, his worried mother, and the family the badly needs him.

Until Iran takes steps to prove their commitment to human rights, the world will not accept them. A giant step Iran could take to getting the world’s approval is releasing this innocent man who has been abandoned, mistreated, and abused while in the custody of Iran.

When he was called to serve his country, he answered that call with bravery and courage. We are asking our elected officials to answer the call Amir has sounded out to them in the same way and do everything within their power to free Amir and return him to his family that have been living a nightmare every day for each 1,312 days he has been hidden away in Iranian prison.

We hope that this will be an important first step in repairing the fractured relationships between these two countries. While we understand that today is a historic day in creating diplomacy between these two countries, this diplomacy absolutely needs to lead to the release of Amir."

Naghmeh Abedini, Saeed's wife, said in a statement that "it is the hope of our family that Saeed and the others are released and returned to their families."

"President Obama has told our family that he considers securing the freedom of Saeed to be a 'top priority' and I continue to take him at his word," Naghmeh said. "As we prepare to celebrate Easter, I want to thank the many people around the country and the world who are continuing to pray for Saeed's release."

Ali Rezaian, Jason's brother, released a statement noted that "the U.S. government and our negotiating partners have claimed Iran can uphold an international agreement," yet for 254 days in Jason's case "Iran has been unable to enforce their own laws or abide by their existing international human rights commitments."

"Now that the framework agreement is in place, we call on the Iranian leadership to review the evidence their underlings claim to have against Jason. If they do, we are certain they will see that Jason has done no harm to Iran," Ali wrote. "Otherwise, they should ensure the judiciary stop their inhumane delays, make public their case against Jason and let the world see why they have stolen 8 months of Jason’s life."