This week Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) challenged President Trump to do more to bring home American citizens unjustly detained in Iran. But rather than criticizing Trump for failing to get the hostages freed, the senators are offering a constructive proposal for cooperation with our economic partners and allies — and Iran — on an issue that should be beyond party politics.
In a letter to Trump, the senators suggested that countries seeking waivers from sanctions on the purchase of Iranian oil should be compelled to help win the release of Americans detained in Iran. Among them are Iraq, India and China: all three with important economic ties to the United States and Iran, and whose ability to purchase fuel from Iran is critical.
They noted that there are nationals of at least 12 other nations — including Canada and the United Kingdom — that are being unlawfully detained in Iran. They propose the creation of a multinational task force to secure releases collectively, but also “to develop international norms that deter hostage-taking and the practice of using political prisoners as pawns in larger negotiations,” as Coons told me.
“No matter who is in the White House, Republican or Democrat, members of Congress from both parties should work together and support efforts to bring hostages home. We are encouraging the administration to work closely with Congress to ensure we are utilizing every available tool to do so,” Coons said.
Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, consistently tout their success in the safe return of hostages from several countries, something they claim the Obama administration was unable to do.
On Tuesday, Pompeo hosted the families of several American hostages, some who are still being held around the world and others who have been murdered by their captors. The meeting was meant to stress the administration’s commitment to the issue.
Unfortunately, the reality is not so clear-cut, and Iran stands out as one country where Trump has been conspicuously unable to get traction on this issue.
“We’ve seen this Administration negotiate with North Korea and Saudi Arabia — two countries that grossly violate human rights,” Kaine told me. “I always support diplomacy first. But with Iran, there is a clear difference with how the Administration seems to actively avoid any effort to create a little bit of room for diplomacy.”
I spoke with some of the families who visited the secretary of state on Tuesday. Their reviews of the encounter were mixed.
While they all appreciate Pompeo for making time to meet with them and his professed commitment on the issue of hostage-taking, those with relatives who are detained in Iran don’t see how a policy that shuns all contact with Tehran can lead to a happy outcome for their families.
They and others watching Trump’s policy to exert “maximum pressure” on Iran worry that their loved ones are victims of a political moment in which engaging directly with Iran on any matter is seen as capitulation.
Others are concerned, and with good reason, that an administration with an antagonistic stance toward Iran might be inclined to use the Americans being held there as part of an argument for more aggressive and isolating actions against the Islamic republic.
“Foreign policy with respect to Iran has been partisan since 1979. But I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on, we all ought to care about American citizens at home and abroad. Ensuring the safety of each and every American should always be our priority,” Kaine said. “Tossing the [nuclear deal], shutting down opportunities for dialogue, and putting in place visa bans on Iranians is bad policy, and it makes it more difficult to ensure we can bring these Americans home.”
In his meetings with the hostages’ families, Pompeo told them that he would have good news for them soon. He didn’t elaborate on what that meant.
Some officials claim that back channels are being used; my conversations with people knowledgeable on the issue say otherwise.
Though it’s always possible that talks might be taking place out of public view — which, after all, is how the Obama administration won my release — there is no sign that any current process is underway to free the detained citizens in Iran or that any active talks such as the ones that led to the release of me and others in 2016 have ever been initiated on Trump’s watch.
All the more reason to give serious consideration to Coons and Kaine’s proposal. Hostage recovery should never be a partisan issue. This administration claims that it is doing everything in its power to bring home Americans being detained wherever they are in the world.
Here’s an opportunity to prove it.