While there is little evidence that the Trump administration has made meaningful progress toward gaining Wang’s freedom, the recent release of two other longtime hostages signals that the Iranian government might be trying to generate goodwill from other countries at a moment it is facing intensifying pressure.
Let’s put aside for a moment the question of whether it’s right to engage with the Iranian regime. Let’s focus instead on the imperative to win freedom for the hostages. This is the perfect time to bring pressure to bear on Tehran to let the rest of its captives go. The United States has leverage that would be hard for Iranian leaders to resist.
Last week, Saeed Malekpour, a Canadian resident and Web developer, who received a temporary furlough for the first time, was able to leave Iran after spending 11 years in Evin prison on trumped-up charges.
In June, U.S. permanent resident Nizar Zakka was released after nearly four years in Iranian custody. Analysts characterized the move as a goodwill gesture by the Iranian regime aimed at beginning a process of deescalation that was all but ignored by the Trump administration.
Needless to say, I rejoice in Malekpour’s and Zakka’s freedom. How could I not?
I’ve never met either man, but they both did very long stretches in the same high-walled cell where I spent 2015, the longest year of my life. Malekpour endured that isolation first, and spent months living with Yadaollah, my Kurdish cellmate, just before I was moved into that lonely space. Days after I was released, Zakka moved into the cell joining Mirsani, the Azerbaijani cellmate that I left behind. Zakka took my bed.
He shared these details with me when we spoke by phone this week. Talking with Zakka was like connecting with a long-lost relative for the first time. He told me about the people we have in common: interrogators, prison guards and hostage friends. Some of the friends are free, and some are still locked up.
“As hostages, knowing that people on the outside in high places like the White House and U.S. State Department are speaking out clearly about you and using your name is critical to our survival,” he told me. “One word spoken about us by one senior official gave us hope for months and months at Evin prison.”
Many U.S. lawmakers, though, have long opposed offering any concessions to the Iranian regime for its piracy. To do so, they say, is essentially paying ransom — which, they insist, only encourages Iran (and increasingly, other governments, too) to take more hostages.
But there’s a contradiction here. In fact, no hostage is ever released without some compensation being offered in return. Despite a longstanding official U.S. policy of no concessions, the government has sometimes offered tacit benefits to Iran in return for the freedom of U.S. captives. No one wants to admit it, but that’s the reality.
They should be applauded for this, because it is the greatest proof that American citizenship still matters. Freeing hostages in other countries is one area in which the Trump administration has had consistent success. Although Iranian hostage-taking remains a challenge that it has failed to address, it doesn’t mean that the administration can’t do better.
Today is the 3rd anniversary of Princeton student Xiyue Wang’s wrongful detention in Iran. We again call on Iran to return Mr. Wang to his family. We are determined to secure the release of all US hostages and wrongful detainees. We will not rest until they are home.— U.S. Special Presidential Envoy O’Brien (@StateSPEHA) August 7, 2019
What’s different now is that the Iranian leadership is about to face one of its most severe tests in the history of the Islamic republic. The nuclear deal is falling apart. Sanctions are biting. The economy is in free fall. The population is showing unprecedented discontent, taking to the streets for public protests on a number of issues.
The United States should seize the opportunity to make it clear that this is the time for the Iranians to free their remaining hostages, and that doing so offers the best chance of renewing a meaningful dialogue between the two countries.
Tehran should start by releasing Wang. In our conversation, Zakka told me that he’s worried about Wang, with whom he spent many months of captivity. This also felt poignantly familiar. All of us who have spent time as hostages in Evin fret incessantly about those who are still there.
Zakka says that Wang is struggling with the trauma of separation from his wife, Hua, and their young son, Shaofan. Hua is in Washington this week to continue to rally support for her husband.
It has been more than two years since I first met her. I can’t believe that she and her family are still being subjected to the Iranian regime’s mercenary ways. “It has taken a tremendous toll on me, my son Shaofan and our families,” she told me recently. “But I think my son has it the hardest. He has spent half of his life without his father, who is suffering in prison for alleged crimes he did not commit. I continue to pray that when my son blows out his birthday candles next year, his father will be home with us.”
The heavy cost exacted on this innocent family — and others who share the same fate — is immeasurable. So let’s redouble our efforts to win the hostages’ freedom.