Relatives of Americans long held hostage in Iran gave heartbreaking testimony to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, as U.S. lawmakers look for new ways to reunite these families and deter the Iranian regime from its 40-year practice of turning innocent people into bargaining chips.
A bipartisan group of senators also introduced a bill called the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-taking Accountability Act, named after a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007.
Tehran is facing growing international pressure as governments are finally starting to refute the notion that the highly publicized arrests of foreign nationals by Iranian security forces have any merit.
The U.K.’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, on Thursday took the extraordinary step of providing diplomatic protection to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, an Iranian-born British citizen and aid worker employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, who has been imprisoned in Iran for nearly three years on ridiculous charges that she was working in coordination with foreign intelligence services to overthrow Iran’s clerical ruling system.
“It’s not a magic wand, it’s not going to solve things overnight, but it does create a different legal and political context,” Hunt said of his decision to give Zaghari-Ratcliffe official cover. It poses a potentially troubling precedent in that other governments may try to employ such protections to free their nationals who are rightfully detained abroad. But obviously, the British government considers this particular case — and ending Iran’s industry of hostage-taking — that important to its security interests.
The British action also shines an uncomfortably bright light on the fact that Washington has so far failed to bring home the six or more currently detained Americans home from Tehran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday tweeted about Americans held by Iran, writing that, “We are determined to secure the release of all U.S. hostages and wrongful detainees, and will not rest until they are home.” Sadly, though, the administration’s complete lack of any channels of communication with the regime in Tehran means there is little hope that Americans will be freed anytime soon.
Frustration is mounting. Halfway through President Trump’s first term in office, no Americans have been released from Iranian custody. The testifying family members and lawmakers alike acknowledged the urgent need for a channel to talk to Tehran, even if limited solely to this issue.
Relatives of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing on an Iranian island during the George W. Bush presidency, spoke. So did Babak Namazi, whose brother Siamak and father Baquer have been imprisoned for over three years on trumped-up spying charges. Also testifying was Omar Zakka, whose father Nizar, a U.S. permanent resident, was invited by one of Iran’s vice presidents to speak at a government-organized conference in 2015. Nizar was arrested, tried and convicted — also on espionage charges — and has been in custody ever since.
Christine Levinson was the first relative to speak. Her husband Robert will have been missing, whereabouts unknown, for 12 years in Iranian captivity on Saturday. Levinson is considered the longest-held hostage in the history of the United States.
“I am absolutely no closer than I was when he first went missing on March 9, 2007,” Christine Levinson said. “I hold the Iranian government responsible, but I believe the U.S. government is at fault as well. After three very different U.S. presidential administrations, we are no closer to bringing Bob home than we were when we started. We have nothing.”
“I am here today to implore the Trump administration, the U.S. Congress, the United Nations and really anyone at all to help me save my father and brother’s lives,” Namazi said, referencing a tweet from President Trump stating that American citizens wouldn’t languish in Iranian prisons on his watch.
But in the absence of direct negotiations with Tehran, prospects for the safe return of these and other Americans falsely imprisoned by the Iranian regime seem bleak.
“I strongly believe that only through direct engagement focused on the humanitarian imperative of bringing American hostages home will there be a likelihood of success,” Namazi said. “While a direct dialogue will not guarantee success, in my view, the absence of dialogue will guarantee failure.”