Family members of Americans believed to be held in Iran told U.S. lawmakers today in an emotional hearing that with the ongoing nuclear negotiations, the U.S. government has entered a brief but vital window in which the U.S. has its best chance of bringing its citizens home.
“These next few weeks is the very crucial time. If we don’t get the Americans out, I don’t know when we’ll have more leverage,” Nagameh Abedini, wife of imprisoned Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, said before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Either way we lose if an agreement is reached or not reached.”
Daniel Levinson, son of missing ex-FBI agent Robert Levinson, explained the logic: If a nuclear deal falls apart between the U.S. and Iran, then relations would likely deteriorate, making Iran less likely to free the Americans in their custody. But even if there is a successful deal, if the Americans are still in captivity by the time it’s signed, Levinson said it’s more likely that the U.S. will lose a “sense of urgency” to press Iran to free them.
“[A nuclear deal] would be a propaganda win for both the [Iranian] regime and for us. I guess a win for the administration,” he said. “But there’s no urgency anymore to increase pressure.”
Now, the two said, is the time.
“We only have a few weeks left,” Abedini said. “While we still have leverage, the Iranian government would still be motivated at some degree to release them.”
Levinson and Abedini were two of four witnesses who made emotional pleas before lawmakers today. The committee also heard from Sarah Hekmati, sister of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, who was arrested while visiting his grandmothers and accused of espionage in late 2011, and Ali Rezaian, brother of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter imprisoned last year and also accused of espionage.
In their opening statements, each family member denied the Iranian allegations and described the dismal conditions in which their loved ones are being held. Sarah Hekmati said her brother has been beaten on the feet with cables and has been tasered repeatedly. Jason Rezaian has lost 40 lbs. and is often kept in solitary confinement, Ali Rezaian said. Nagameh Abedini said Saeed is doing “horribly, physically and psychologically” and suffered from internal bleeding from early beatings.
“I’m not just worried about his physical pain, but his psychological [pain],” Abedini said.
One of the few signs of life to come from Robert Levinson’s captors, Daniel said, was a series of photos in which Levinson looked gaunt and sickly.
Daniel Levinson notes in his remarks that unlike Hekmati, Abedini and Rezaian, Iranian officials have never acknowledged taking his father into custody and have claimed they don’t know who did. The U.S. repeatedly has asked the government of Iran for their help in locating the elder Levinson -- a request to which the Iranians have agreed, but to no avail. Levinson disappeared from Iran's Kish Island in 2007.
Following their testimony, a chorus of lawmakers vocally took up the families’ cause, saying the Obama administration should not agree to any nuclear deal with Iran -- or even proceed with current negotiations, as some said -- until the Americans are freed.
“We should stop the negotiations until they agree to release our American hostages first and foremost,” said Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas and Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was “ludicrous and outrageous” for the U.S. to have a deal with Iran that “doesn’t include the bringing home of the hostages.”
Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., clarified that he didn’t believe the Americans’ freedom should be contingent on any American concessions.
“I think that’s an important point that we understand this moment provides us the chance to engage with Iran on this question, but that we not conflate the freedom of these Americans with the items that are being negotiated regarding those nuclear capabilities,” he said.
Last week White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the U.S. would not negotiate for the Americans’ release as they are being “unjustly held” in the first place.
“We’ve also been clear that we will not allow these American citizens to be used as bargaining chips,” Earnest said, adding that the White House will continue to raise their cases with Iranian officials, both privately and publicly, until they’ve been released.
The U.S. and Iran are slowing approaching a June 30 deadline for a new nuclear accord, negotiations for which reportedly have been described by American officials as “at times intense.”
Immediately following today’s hearing, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a House resolution that states Iran should “immediately” release the three U.S. citizens it acknowledges holding and provide “all known information” on U.S. citizens who have disappeared within its borders.
“The resolution we have passed rightly points out that if Iran truly wishes to engage constructively with the rest of the world regarding its nuclear program, step one would be releasing these Americans and allowing them to be reunited with their loved ones,” committee chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., said.