June 2, 2015
POLITICO
Nahal Toosi

U.S. officials have long said that although they will not link the release of Americans detained in Iran to ongoing nuclear talks with the country, they frequently raise the detainees’ plight on the sidelines of the negotiations.

That U.S. and Iranian officials are meeting face-to-face is extraordinary — the nuclear talks are a rare chance for high-level American and Iranian officials to engage after nearly 40 years of hostility.

But the talks are due to end in just weeks, and there’s no sign Iran is willing to free the Americans. That has left some of the detainees’ advocates, including some lawmakers, increasingly worried that the U.S. is about to squander an unusual opening, with no fresh strategy in place.

“We believe the next few weeks are very crucial in using that leverage, that we are talking with the Iranians,” Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband, Saeed, is in Iranian custody, said in an interview this week. “I just want to make sure our government is not walking away without securing [the detainees’] release.”

Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a fierce advocate for detainee Amir Hekmati, echoed the concern. “This has been the most difficult part of advocating on behalf of Mr. Hekmati, to simultaneously take advantage of this moment … without conflating the freedom of these individuals with the negotiations that are taking place,” he said.

On Tuesday, Abedini and representatives of three other American families with loved ones either missing or imprisoned in Iran joined in public for the first time to appeal for their freedom, testifying before a panel of sympathetic lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Sarah Hekmati, sister of imprisoned former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, cried as she described how their father has brain cancer but cannot see his son, whom she said has been tortured in Iran’s jails. And Ali Rezaian, brother of imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, noted that his brother had lost over 40 pounds while in custody.

“It’s time for the families here to all be reunited,” Ali Rezaian said.

The committee passed a resolution calling on Iran to release or help find the men. The measure, spearheaded by Kildee, does not mention the nuclear talks, which have a June 30 deadline. But during the hearing, some lawmakers raised the possibility of tying the two issues together, despite the Obama administration’s reluctance.

Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), questioned how the U.S. could trust Iran to keep its nuclear promises if it won’t release the men. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) pointed out that Congress will eventually weigh in on the deal. The “very least that we could do is step forward and say ‘Any deal is dead without the release of these Americans,’” he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) even suggested seeking ways to arrest Iranian government representatives unless the Americans are freed — an option that would be legally tricky and could spur international criticism.

The three imprisoned Americans have full or partial Iranian backgrounds: Hekmati has been held for 3½ years on espionage accusations, and at one point he was sentenced to death; Rezaian is on trial on espionage charges after being held nearly a year; and Abedini, who is Christian, is serving an eight-year sentence related to his religious activities.

The men’s relatives insist they did nothing illegal.

The fourth case, that of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, is more murky. Iran insists it isn’t holding Levinson, who was reportedly working for the CIA as a contractor when he vanished more than eight years ago from the Iranian island of Kish, but the U.S. has urged Iranian officials to at least help locate him.

Levinson’s son Daniel told lawmakers that he worried that once the nuclear talks end, there won’t be “a sense of urgency to get any of our family members home anymore.”

The State Department has used a variety of means, including turning to third parties and issuing public statements, to try to pressure the Iranians on the cases — methods it has used to help free other Americans previously held in Iran. One complication is that Iran often does not recognize the foreign nationality of detainees who are of Iranian descent.

Asked about concerns that once the nuclear talks end the U.S. will lose leverage on the detainees issue, a State Department official insisted that the U.S. “will continue to press for their release regardless of what happens with the nuclear talks over the next month, and we will continue to have a variety of means to communicate that message.”

Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst, said there’s little question that each man was detained to pressure the United States, though it’s possible the arrests were not coordinated among the multiple factions in Iran’s government. “I often suspect that they sort of take these guys first and think about what to do with them later,” he said.

And it’s possible that, based on the contacts established through the nuclear negotiations — and, as some have noted, the fact that there’s no longer a taboo on talking face-to-face with the Iranians — the U.S. could later make headway on the detainees and Levinson.

But in many ways, it’s about what Iran feels is in its interest at a given time. With a nuclear deal taken care of, and sanctions lifted as a result, Iran could feel even more shielded from international pressure than before, Ostovar said.

“What are we going to do about it if they don’t give up Jason or they don’t release Bob Levinson?” Ostovar said. “We’re not going to go to war. We don’t play the kidnap games.”

During the hearing Tuesday, Kildee — unlike many of his House colleagues — argued against tying the nuclear agreement to the release of the Americans, saying it would send the wrong message to Iran.

“We never want to be in a position where we are offering concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities or economic sanctions in return for the freedom of innocent Americans,” he said, according to written remarks. “If Iran wants to be taken seriously in the global community, Iran has to realize that it cannot hold political prisoners like Amir Hekmati.”

Sarah Hekmati pointed out that in previous cases, such as that of three American hikers who were held by the Iranians, there were no nuclear talks going on, and yet the Iranian officials eventually released the prisoners. Her brother is believed to be the longest held American prisoner in Iran.

In her testimony, Sarah Hekmati said that when the Hekmati family first found out Amir had been imprisoned, both the Iranian and American governments urged them not to go public with the news because the media attention could put him in more danger. But, according to the family, Hekmati has suffered multiple types of torture, including being tasered in the kidneys and placed in stress positions.

In an interview, Sarah Hekmati stressed that she is grateful to U.S. officials trying to work for her brother’s release, but that “3 1/2 years into this, I want to know more than just that Amir’s case is being raised on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. We just want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

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