Barry Rosen is a survivor of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, a senior adviser at United Against Nuclear Iran and a founding member of Hostage Aid Worldwide.
But at age 77, I know there will be only so many more opportunities for me to try to alleviate the suffering of others facing a similar fate at the hands of the Iranian regime by advocating for the international community to end Iran’s hostage diplomacy.
Observers estimate that Iran holds more than a dozen, perhaps two dozen, foreign and dual-nationals — including at least four Americans — as bargaining chips for economic and diplomatic concessions. It’s a disgusting, inhumane and illegal practice that began with the Iranian revolution more than four decades ago and has continued to this day. So, last month, I traveled to Vienna — the site of multilateral talks to restore the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and began a hunger strike.
The message that I carried to negotiators for the Biden administration and European leaders over the course of five days was simple: Work together and make no deals with Iran until all of the hostages are released. I also urged them, if a deal is inked in Vienna, to include a provision that sanctions would snap back if Tehran took fresh hostages.
I also cautioned against unfreezing Iranian assets or releasing convicted terrorists in exchange for innocent hostages, as that only incentivizes the Iranian leadership to continue this criminal practice.
I’ve been moved by the Biden administration’s stated commitment to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy. I also admire the administration’s desire to work multilaterally. The hostage issue cuts across both priorities. But it isn’t clear that our political leaders fully grasp that at least a dozen families are on the edge of losing the leverage — a nuclear deal — that may be their last chance to bring their family members home alive. It is urgent that President Biden recalibrate his administration’s approach to align the nuclear negotiations with his beliefs.
During our meetings, Robert Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, and his European counterparts appeared to express genuine concern for the hostages. But the hostages’ fate still seems to be regarded, at best, as an add-on to the nuclear file. Malley did tell me and reporters that “it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran” — but he did not rule it out.
At that same meeting, Malley persuaded me to end my hunger strike to protect my health, and he said the crisis of dual citizens held hostage by the Islamic Republic “has our full attention.”
It would be a tragic mistake to narrow our focus to resolving the threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The hostage issue is part of that equation, as is the abominable human rights situation inside Iran. For the Biden administration to align its words with its deeds, we need to see the same degree of attention and urgency that is given to the nuclear file put on the range of Iran’s other malign conduct. Human beings should always come first.
The United States need not go it alone. In fact, it shouldn’t. The patchwork policies of Western countries have failed to stop hostage-taking. Tehran should be confronted with a multilateral effort. Americans, British, French, Austrians, Canadians, Swedes and Germans — all of whom count their fellow citizens as hostages in Iran — should band together to bring pressure. Strength is in numbers.
Should the piecemeal approach continue instead, and the hostages’ fate allowed to be kept separate from the nuclear talks, it will just confirm Iranian leaders’ belief that Western talk about human rights is just that — talk — and that there is little price to pay for Tehran’s hostage diplomacy. This is a dangerous message to send to Iran and its watchful allies.
I am disheartened that the international community still believes it can trust the leaders of a country that takes hostages. I am sickened that we might be party to yet another deal that leaves innocent people behind. And I am dismayed that the United States in particular seems to have a save-the-JCPOA policy, but not a comprehensive Iran policy, despite more than 40 years of unending confrontation with a revolutionary regime that plays by its own rules.
This is an opportunity for Biden to lead with greater moral clarity on human rights than any of his predecessors during those four decades.