“I don’t believe they were trying very hard. …When they asked Kerry about the hostages, he said we didn’t want to discuss the hostages because we didn’t want to complicate the negotiation. How ridiculous is that? But he made that statement. And Obama, your friend over at CBS, made the same statement. He said we didn’t want to complicate the negotiations.”
— Businessman Donald Trump, in an interview on CNN’s “New Day,” Sept. 10, 2015
GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump has attacked the international agreement restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions on numerous fronts, but his pledge to focus first on the fate of Americans being held in Iran has gathered significant attention.
In fact, he has suggested that Iran would release the Americans if he were elected president. “If I am elected, I am sure the prisoners will be released before my taking office,” Trump wrote in USA Today. He was clearly trying to draw a link to the 52 hostages released by Iran just moments after Ronald Reagan took the oath of office in 1981.
The four Americans include Jason Rezaian, The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran, detained since 2014 and recently put on trial on charges — including espionage — rejected by the newspaper; former FBI agent Robert Levinson, kidnapped in 2007 while working as a CIA contractor on Kish Island and still missing; Saeed Abedini, an Idaho pastor detained in 2012 and later convicted of starting home churches; and ex-Marine Amir Hekmati, seized in 2011 and sentenced to 10 years for “cooperating with hostile governments.”
So, did either Secretary of State John Kerry or President Obama say that raising the issue of the detainees would “complicate” the nuclear talks — and did Kerry say he did not even want to discuss them? We received no response from a Trump spokeswoman when we asked for evidence, but we think we have a fairly complete list of statements.
Here are three statements by Kerry in July when he was asked what the administration had done about the Americans.
“There was not a meeting that took place — not one meeting that took place — believe me, that’s not an exaggeration — where we did not raise the issue of our American citizens being held. And in fact, it was the last conversation that I had with the foreign minister at the Vienna Center. Right before we went out publicly, I talked to him the last time about that.”
“Every single meeting, everywhere in the world that ever took place with the Iranians, we have raised the issue of the American citizens, and we are working on the issue of the American citizens even now.”
“On the detainees, Chuck, we raised them at every single meeting. We are still engaged in discussions with them, and I hope they will come back to the United States soon. That’s my hope, and we are working continually to get them back.”
We will leave it to readers to decide whether this means the administration was trying hard enough to obtain the release of the Americans. But it certainly suggests, contrary to Trump’s statement, that administration negotiators frequently discussed the fate of the detainees. Indeed, this has been a consistent theme whenever Kerry has been asked about it. In a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee on Feb. 25, Kerry mentioned each American by name:
“We have raised those cases. We raise them in every conversation that we have. In fact, we raise all of our missing citizens — we have a number of them in various parts of the world. And we raise them on a consistent basis, not only through our embassies, but any time that I visit either here or go somewhere and we meet at high levels, we raise these issues by name. We have raised the names of the — of the folks — Mr. Abedini, Mr. Hekmati, Mr. Levinson, Mr. Rezaian most recently, when I was in Geneva just a couple days ago. And we consistently — and we’re working. We actually have a process now in place where we’re working them quietly, trying to see what could be arranged.”
As far as we can tell, Kerry has never said that the detainees would “complicate” the nuclear negotiations. So what about Obama?
At a news conference in July, Obama was asked why their fate was not connected to a successful completion of the deal. Here was his response to a sharp question from a CBS News reporter asking why he was “content” to celebrate the nuclear deal when Americans were still held in Iran:
“I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody is content. And our diplomats and our teams are working diligently to try to get them out.
“Now, if the question is why we did not tie the negotiations to their release, think about the logic that that creates. Suddenly, Iran realizes, you know what, maybe we can get additional concessions out of the Americans by holding these individuals. It makes it much more difficult for us to walk away if Iran somehow thinks that a nuclear deal is dependent in some fashion on [their release]. And, by the way, if we had walked away from the nuclear deal, we’d still be pushing them just as hard to get these folks out. That’s why those issues are not connected. But we are working every single day to try to get them out, and won’t stop until they’re out and rejoined with their families.”
Obama did not say that the detainees would “complicate” the nuclear talks; instead, he claimed it would be a poor negotiating strategy because it would just give Iran more leverage. That’s obviously a judgment call. Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman expanded on that logic in a news conference the next day:
“A decision was made a very long time ago that trying to get our Americans home should be a separate matter. And as I think most of you know, every time I see the Iranians, every time that Secretary Kerry sees the Iranians on the margins of the talks, we have a separate, independent conversation about the detained Americans. We also use our Swiss protecting power to help to look after the welfare of the Americans until we can get them home.”
But it turns out that the administration had made this position clear months earlier. Here’s Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a Senate hearing in January:
“Senator, can I just say, you’re absolutely right. Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian must be released regardless of anything else we’re doing with Iran. It’s an entirely distinct issue. They are wrongly imprisoned. And we need to find Robert Levinson and, hopefully, bring him home. We fully agree. But we think that tying that to any agreement, the success or failure, for that matter, of an agreement, is not the best way to get them out. I can assure you, and I think you know this, the only issue that we raise with them on the margins of the nuclear talks every single time, other than the nuclear talks, are those who are unjustly imprisoned in Iran. And we are working every day to get them home. And we will not stop until we do.”
So where could this notion of “complicate the negotiations” come from? The best we can tell, it’s from a headline on a right-leaning Web site, the Conservative Daily News, in an article on the July news conference: “Obama: Adding hostages to negotiation would have been ‘complicated.’ ” The headline put the word “complicated” in quotes, suggesting Obama used it, but that’s false.
Sarah Shourd, an American who was held in an Iranian prison for more than a year, recently wrote in the Daily Beast that the Iran deal and the fate of the Americans are already informally linked because easing tensions between the two countries will make it easier for Iran to release the Americans. As evidence, she noted that the negotiations, led by Oman, over her and two colleagues seized by Iran actually paved the way for the start of the nuclear talks. (Our former colleague Robin Wright, in an article for The New Yorker, interviewed other former hostages about Trump’s claim that they would be released before he took the oath of office.)
State Department spokesman John Kirby issued the following statement in response to Trump’s remarks;
“Secretary Kerry never asserted that he refused to raise the issue of the detained and missing Americans in Iran because it would complicate negotiations. In fact, he has consistently made clear that he used every opportunity to raise the cases of Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, and Robert Levinson and to call for their return home. This includes raising these cases on the sidelines of the nuclear talks. And we continue to pursue every avenue to bring them home.
”We have also been clear that we have never and would never link these cases to the nuclear talks, not because these cases would complicate the negotiations, but because the fate of our detained and missing citizens should not depend on unrelated negotiations that may or may not have led to a successful conclusion.
“We continue to call on the Iranian government to release Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, and to work cooperatively with us to locate Robert Levinson, so that all can be returned to their families.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump left viewers with the erroneous impression that Kerry had refused to discuss the Americans held in Iran, when, in fact, Kerry and other State Department officials insist that the cases have been raised at virtually every meeting with Iranian officials. What the administration did instead was not tie the detained Americans to a successful conclusion of the nuclear talks, for fear of having to trade numbers of centrifuges for Americans.
That’s obviously a judgment call about which reasonable people may disagree. Some might argue that the United States had the maximum leverage to obtain the Americans’ release before a deal was completed. Moreover, there might have been an opportunity toward the end of the talks — when Iran pressed issues such as easing a conventional-arms embargo — for the Obama administration to put the detainees on the negotiating table.
Some might conclude that Trump captured the essence of the administration’s statements — that the detainees would have added complexity to an already difficult process. After all, Obama did say that it would have made it “much more difficult for us to walk away.” But the key point made by Obama and State Department officials was that maintaining separate negotiating tracks was a more prudent approach.
We struggled with this ruling, nearly thinking it was worthy of Four Pinocchios, but ultimately tipped toward Three. The administration certainly did not want to mix the two issues. But Trump suggests the administration was indifferent to the fate of the Americans, not even bothering to raise them in the sidelines of the Iran talks. That’s simply wrong.
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