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Opinion Congress makes a long-overdue move to punish Iran’s hostage-takers

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow last month. (Sergei Chirikov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

This piece has been updated, 3:45 p.m.

“Now is the day of reckoning for the Iranian regime,” Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.) said on Wednesday. “That’s just the way it is.”

Poe was speaking on the floor of a mostly empty House during the introduction of the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act — legislation, which among other things, “mandates sanctions on Iranian officials responsible for wrongful, politically motivated jailing of U.S. citizens.”

The bill, which passed on Thursday, is the latest attempt to put an end to Iran’s long-established practice of taking Americans hostage.

Similar bills have been put forward before, and all of them pass, usually without opposition. Iran is one of the rare issues on which there is reliable bipartisan agreement.

Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents my home district in California, told me he is voting for the bill “because it directs the president to impose sanctions on Iranian officials for ordering prolonged detentions and politically motivated abuses.” When I was spending 544 days imprisoned in Iran, Huffman was vocal in fighting for my freedom, but he also voiced support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal.

He and other Democrats believe abandoning the nuclear accord would close the most important avenues of communication we have with Tehran, and I think he’s right.

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“After the passage of the JCPOA, I saw first-hand how the newly opened and necessary diplomatic channels paved the way to free prisoners in Iran,” Huffman said.

This new legislation is unique for two reasons. First, it provides a deeper and more nuanced description of Iran’s taking of hostages as tool of its foreign policy rather than simply demanding freedom for those citizens being held. Second, rather than prescribing blanket sanctions that would hurt the Iranian people, it specifically targets officials involved in hostage-takings.

A surprisingly large number of Iranian officials travel to New York each year for the U.N. General Assembly. Not only president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif but also lower-profile ones such as Mohammad Javad Larijani, who studied at Berkeley and is tasked with monitoring human rights. He is also the brother of the head of Iran’s judiciary.

Some of these officials have family members living in the United States, while others are believed to own property here. Those with no actual connection simply relish the opportunity to come to the United States and shop.

Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told me he hopes the new measures will “cut off the perks of the job.”

“Very few Iranian officials have ever been designated for human rights abuses. We’re trying to create some leverage, so the regime faces consequences for attacks on American and citizens of other countries alike,” Royce said.

The legislation allows the United States to hold individual Iranian officials accountable for the arbitrary detention of citizens and “other persons with connections to Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and other nations allied with the United States.” This is a vital step, because this problem affects our allies, too, and it shows we are ready to help.

Iran continues to aggressively employ this old tactic even as many of its top officials say they want to take a more proactive and responsible role on the world stage. Just this week, in fact, week another British citizen appears to have been arrested.

The Iranian regime does not realize, or is unwilling to accept, that the “type of hostage-taking enterprise put in place by the Iranian regime is a crime against humanity and a violation of customary international law,” as the legislation puts it.

Iranian officials are extremely sensitive to the existence of laws in other countries that can hold them accountable for abuses meted out inside their country. They have grown comfortable in the knowledge they won’t be held accountable for their actions, and laws like this one challenge those assumptions.

They have also learned to ignore the personal nature of this crime in large part because none of them have ever been held accountable for it. Hostage-taking destroys lives, tears apart families and leaves lasting trauma in its wake. Are there human-rights abuses that are worse than this? Undoubtedly. But this is practice that flouts every international convention on human rights and must be ended. It is a tool of terrorists and pirates, not sovereign states.

“We have to use the leverage that comes with legislation like this,” Royce told me. Much like the Global Magnitsky Act, which allows the United States to sanction officials of foreign governments of human-rights abuses, the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act is intended to make Iranian officials pay a personal cost for their bad deeds.

This could include seizing property owned by Iranian officials in the United States, imposing travel bans on officials (and their families), and blocking them from making personal financial transactions.

Nothing the United States has tried has deterred Iran from continuing this particular bad habit. Making punishment personal for those who enable, carry out and defend Tehran’s terrible tradition of hostage-taking might just be the answer to this decades-old puzzle.

Correction: According to Iran’s permanent mission to the United Nations, Masoumeh Ebtekar has not traveled to the United States since 1979. This version has been updated.

Read more on this issue:

The 444-day Iran hostage crisis began 37 years ago

Iran’s for-profit imprisonment of U.S. citizens

The clock is ticking for Americans held hostage in Iran

Jason Rezaian’s wife, mother describe their tortuous final hours in Iran

Was the $400 million in cash paid after the Iran prisoner deal really ransom?

U.S. prisoner in Iran receives pacemaker as Trump calls for Tehran to free him