Keywords: Laft Iran
Description: The stories of an American ex-Marine and a Christian pastor imprisoned in the Islamic Republic, the nuclear deal that will likely leave them behind bars, and the two women fighting for their freedom.
The stories of an American ex-Marine and a Christian pastor imprisoned in the Islamic Republic, the nuclear deal that will likely leave them behind bars, and the two women fighting for their freedom.
T here exists a world in which Sami Kurdi’s uncle is free. Sami, seven, sees it all perfectly as he works out the design. How he and his father will distract the guard at the maximum-security prison. How his uncle will be waiting for him, smiling and confident. How for the first time in four years, his uncle will wrest himself from the prison guards and come home.
As he draws, his mother watches him, and she wonders what her brother, Amir Hekmati, an American Marine, is thinking at that moment as he languishes behind bars in Tehran for a crime he didn’t commit.
Is he thinking of their father, Ali, who has become immobilized by the two strokes he has sustained since Amir’s detainment, and whose brain cancer is getting worse? Is he thinking of the harsh winters in his prison, where there is no heating, where food is rationed, and where Amir has been transferred to the ward that houses violent, hardened criminals?
Is he thinking back to the first four months of his imprisonment, during which time Amir dropped thirty pounds, was shackled, and was confined to a three-by-three meter cell?
Perhaps he is thinking about his own government, which has steered clear of tying his release to progress in the ongoing P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Perhaps Amir is pondering his own refusal to simply be a bargaining chip for the country that has wrongly imprisoned him, while acknowledging that these negotiations are likely the best chance he has at securing his freedom.
As Sarah Hekmati ponders her brother’s present state of mind from her home in Michigan, Naghmeh Abedini allows the memories of her past life with her husband, Saeed Abedini, to wash over her while she peers out from her home into the empty streets of suburban Boise, Idaho. The memories of Saeed—that’s all she has of him now—overwhelm her. She thinks back to the day they met. His charisma, his fierce passion for his religion, his love of service. Their common past that led to their instantaneous connection. She thinks forward to the day they will meet again, when he will be released from Rajai Shahr prison for his “crime” of “undermining national security” through his practice of Christianity in Iran. She looks ahead to a day she knows may never come, but she has no other choice than to believe that it will.
It all comes back to faith. There is no other word for it. Naghmeh looks to her children, Rebecca and Jacob. It was their shared faith that led Naghmeh to Saeed, and now, without Saeed, faith is all she and her children have. Without that faith, they are lost.
Back in Flushing, Michigan, just a short drive from Flint, Sami continues to draw. The escape plan is nearing completion. One more drawing should do it. A bit more imagination, and Uncle Amir will be walking through that door any day.
T oday, three U.S. citizens—Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini—sit behind bars in Iranian prisons on charges that are dubious at best, while a fourth, Robert Levinson, who was detained in Iran in 2007 and remains missing, has become the longest-held American hostage in U.S. history.
The United States has repeatedly stated that it is not tying the release of these Americans to progress on the nuclear issue. The National Security Council made this position unequivocally clear last fall when NSC Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said, “While the U.S. delegation raises the cases of [American prisoners] with the Iranians in our bilateral meetings on the margins of those talks, the status of the Americans is not a part of the nuclear negotiations.” Meehan reiterated this position as recently as last month.
So the question remains: in the wake of a potential détente with Iran, is there a chance that our government would willingly permit Tehran to continue holding these Americans hostage?
“Sure. absolutely,” says Gary Samore, President Obama’s former Counterproliferation Czar in charge of the Iran portfolio. “And what would happen to them in the wake of a nuclear deal is very hard to anticipate.”
While the case of Jason Rezaian, the sitting Tehran Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. has received nearly daily press from his fellow journalists as his case proceeds in an Iranian court, the plights of the other American prisoners have not received the same coverage. However, Levinson’s whereabouts are unknown to U.S. officials, and it is unclear whether he is even in Iranian hands.
Yet securing the release of a former U.S. Marine and a Christian preacher is no less important to U.S. foreign policy interests than is ensuring Rezaian and Levinson’s safe return. If Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini are to remain in Iranian prison long after the nuclear deal is done, then at the very least they deserve to have their stories known, and their fellow Americans back home deserve to know who we are leaving behind.
Sarah Hekmati (right) listens as Nagameh Abedini addresses the House Foreign Affairs Committee, June 2, 2015 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).
Sarah Hekmati is speaking from her Flushing home on this late March evening. It has been close to four years since she last saw or spoke with her brother, former United States Marine Amir Hekmati. At first, in keeping with the government’s advice, Sarah and the rest of the Hekmati family remained quiet so as not to endanger her brother. But as Amir continues to languish in prison, Sarah has begun to find, and use, her voice to advocate for his freedom.
On the night Amir was taken hostage, his captors surely knew that he was more than just an average American who got stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet in speaking with Sarah, a picture forms of Amir that is much more than just a former Marine. A portrait emerges of young, entrepreneurial, self-driven, patriotic Muslim-American who personifies the most ideal qualities of the country he has honorably served.
Amir Mirza Hekmati was born in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1983. When he was young, his family relocated to Flint, Michigan for his father’s job. Amir, whose parents were born in Iran, grew up as a dual Iranian-American citizen in a bilingual home and acquired a conversational grasp of Farsi. Perhaps spurred by his connection to his parents’ homeland, Amir felt as he grew up that his destiny lay far beyond Flint.
“From a young age,” says Sarah, “he was always thinking, ‘What can I do to leave my mark on the world? What is my legacy going to be?’”
In 2001, when he was 18, Amir enlisted in the Marines. Not only did he think that it would be a noble opportunity to serve his country and enhance his sense of global mission, but he also believed he could use the opportunity to strengthen his language skills and cultural familiarity to boot. After a few months at Camp Pendleton, he was assigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to enhance his Farsi and master Arabic.
“He had a vision of being in the Marines,” Sarah says. He had no thoughts of being in combat. “When he enlisted, it was a few months before 9/11. I’m sure he didn’t imagine he would be signing up to go to war.”
But in the wake of September 11 and the Bush Administration’s subsequent decision to invade Iraq, the government saw Amir’s language skills as a valuable asset. From April through September 2004, Amir was deployed to Iraq, serving as a translator.
“He built [cultural] bridges in Iraq and facilitated dialogue,” Sarah says. Notwithstanding historical tensions between Iraq and Iran, Amir nonetheless felt that “Iraqis felt more comfortable with [him] because of his Middle Eastern descent.”
Amir told his family that even though his deployment was unexpected, he had been profoundly moved by his experience in Iraq. “It was so eye-opening, so humbling for Amir,” recalls his sister. Though proud of the military’s work to build bridges with Iraqi society, Amir would confide in his sister after returning home that it “broke [his] heart that we had the privilege of leaving to our first world lives, and [the Iraqis] had to stay in that war-torn country.”
Amir was honorably discharged from the military after four years in 2005, achieving the rank of sergeant and receiving multiple awards and medals for his service.
From 2005 to 2011, Amir continued pursuing his passion for languages and intercultural bridge-building. He founded a translation company, Lucid Linguistics LLC, and worked on a variety of contracts focusing on providing language training to troops. In 2011, he was accepted into the University of Michigan for a Masters in Economics.
“Amir always had a business mind,” his sister says. He had hoped that his time at Michigan would enable him to “learn more about international investment,” and perhaps further enable him to put his language skills to use with a new skill set.
Before setting off for Ann Arbor, however, there was one other goal that Amir had in mind, something he had always longed to do but did not have the time or resources to accomplish until now: see Iran. So in the summer of 2011, he planned to use the time between finishing his language work and beginning his studies to visit his grandmother, whom he had not seen in 14 years.
Amir obtained permission to enter Iran from the Iranian Interests section of the Embassy of Pakistan. He was also assured that his prior military history would not render his visit unsafe. Thus, on August 14, 2011, 28-year-old Amir arrived in Iran during Ramadan, eager to reunite with his family, people, and culture.
From the outset of his arrival, Amir felt his roots, as well as a nearly euphoric sense of homecoming. “He was on this utopic high,” Sarah says. “He was raving about meeting aunts and uncles, people who looked like him.” During that time, Sarah says, Amir was in constant contact with his mother, Behnaz, updating her on details and letting her know he was safe.
One evening, two weeks after his arrival, Amir called his mother to tell her that he was going to a family party for Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. He said he would call her again when they returned.
Fearing the worst, his mother began to frantically try to connect with family. Three days later, Amir’s mother finally did receive a call, but from Amir’s uncle. Amir never appeared at the party, he said, and he was missing. When family members came to check in on him the night of the party, they were greeted with busted doors. Amir’s laptop and passports were gone.
Panicking, Sarah, Ali and Behnaz contacted the Iranian Interests Section and the State Department. No one at the State Department could locate Amir, and the Iranian government was not forthcoming with information. For nearly three months, radio silence.
Then, the rumors started to come in that Amir had been imprisoned, though the Hekmatis had no access to information on the charges. “It wasn’t until the end of November that we were hearing whispers that he was in Evin Prison,” remembers Sarah. Located in northern Tehran, Evin Prison is notorious for its use of torture and for housing of political prisoners in the same barracks as violent criminals. “‘He is in the interrogation phase, he is not allowed access to any visitation, or attorney,’” Sarah recalls being told. “No family could contact him.”
O n a Spring afternoon, on the phone from Boise, Idaho, Naghmeh Abedini speaks with a voice that is steady, but rising.
“We have until the end of June to free the Americans,” she states. That is it. If not by the end of this month, she is convinced, the opportunity is lost. Her husband, a Christian convert from Islam, is in the third year of an eight-year sentence, essentially for the “crime” of practicing Christianity while being in Iran. But Naghmeh fears that between his physical and mental torture and Iran’s history of lying to her and her family, one way or another Tehran will find a way to prevent Saeed from ever reuniting with his family. “Once the deal is made,” she says, her voice lowering, “we have almost no leverage.”
Sure, there are all the good words from the State Department, all the reassurances from the President. Still, she knows that any nuclear deal will likely leave her husband imprisoned for a “criminal act” for which he is not only not guilty, but indeed was not even illegal at the time he did it.
The path that led to Saeed Abedini’s abduction and imprisonment is as implausible as his incarceration is exasperating.
Born into a devout Shi‘a family in Iran, Saeed fell easily into radicalization and grew up believing that faiths other than Islam had no place in Iran. In his later teen years, however, Saeed began to question his faith. His transformation from Muslim Shi‘a to Christian Evangelical was gradual. But his ultimate decision to convert in 2000, at the tender age of twenty, required his absolute faith—not only as a matter of Christian piety, but also because, in his family, in his country, he knew his conversion might be tantamount to a death sentence. Ultimately, as Naghmeh describes it, Saeed had a dream in which Jesus came to him and told him to preach his gospel. After that day, Saeed set on his new path, without the old doubts—but with the fears still lingering.
“He was scared of going to hell,” Naghmeh says. But more than that, “he was scared of the consequences, that he would be abandoned and rejected by his family, and potentially persecuted or arrested. In the Middle East, the decision to convert out of Islam could cost you everything—your family, your job, your life.”
In at least one sense, Naghmeh should know. She, too, was born into a Shi‘a Muslim family in Iran. Her conversion to Christianity took place while she was living in America, but she nevertheless deeply feared the sacrifices it would require her to make in her family. For those who have converted out of Islam while living in Iran, the decision can mean sacrificing everything.
In Saeed’s case, it nearly did. When he delivered the news to his family, his father threw him out of the house. Saeed remained in Iran but had nowhere to call home. Yet remarkably his two sisters followed Saeed’s path to conversion within six months, and over the next four years his parents did as well. By 2005, Saeed Abedini’s entire family had become Christian.
Naghmeh met Saeed in Iran in 2002. Their instantaneous connection was fueled by their common faith and their uncommon shared past. “What caught my eye was the passion he had and the transformation he had in his life,” Naghmeh recalls. “I’ve never seen a person more passionate about his faith in Jesus Christ.”
Shortly after converting, Saeed joined the Bible School of the Central Assembly of God and helped coordinate so-called “house church” gatherings, in which Christians come together for prayer and song in private residences. Under Iranian law, house churches are at least theoretically sanctioned under Articles 23 and 26 of the Iranian Constitution, which protect the rights of belief and of minority religions, respectively.
At the time of Saeed’s conversion, Iran’s President was Mohammad Khatami, who was, if not a reformer, at least considered a moderate. Under Khatami’s government, house churches were permitted relative freedom; they did not require formal government sanction and existed with the knowledge and approval of the Khatami-led government. While Saeed faced threats and intimidation daily, he did not face official government charges.
Saeed and Naghmeh wed in 2004. In registering for the wedding, Saeed and Naghmeh confirmed to the government that they had converted to Christianity. Remarkably, the government recognized the conversion by granting them a Protestant marriage certificate. The approval meant that not only was the Abedini marriage acknowledged as a Christian union, but also that their kids would not be considered apostates, meaning, among other things, that they would not be subject to mandatory Islamic education should they attend school in Iran.
The following year, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected the new President of Iran. Under Ahmadinejad, the rights of the Christian minority (as well as those of various other minorities, including Jews) spiraled downward. According to a report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released at the end of the Ahmadinejad Presidency, Ahmadinejad’s crackdown on Christians began almost immediately upon his assuming office. Breaking with his predecessor, the new President stopped permitting house churches and began to call for “an end to development of Christianity in Iran,” according to the report. Under Ahmadinejad, the government required Evangelical Christians to submit membership lists. Evangelicals, particularly converts from Islam, were subject to arbitrary arrests and detentions for practicing their faith.
Seeing the writing on the wall, Saeed began to realize that his days of safety in Iran were numbered under Ahmadinejad. In 2006, Saeed was able to obtain a green card through his marriage to Naghmeh, an American citizen (Saeed, too, would obtain U.S. citizenship in 2010). The couple arrived in Boise, Idaho, a world away from their home in Tehran, and began anew.
Settling into their American life, Naghmeh and Saeed began to create an American family. Naghmeh gave birth to a daughter, Rebecca, in 2006, and a son, Jacob, two years later. But Saeed’s adjustment to America had no shortage of growing pains. He longed to return.
“Saeed really wanted to go back to Tehran,” Nagmeh remembers. “He missed not seeing his family.” And so, three years after leaving, Saeed, Naghmeh, and their two children decided to risk it and return to Iran for a visit in 2009. During that visit, the Abedinis faced less scrutiny than they had expected. “We were there for three weeks in 2009,” says Naghmeh. Granted, after Naghmeh and her children returned home, Saeed was detained and interrogated for several months. “But,” Naghmeh says, “[Saeed was] never put in prison.”
According to Tiffany Barrans, the International Legal Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Saeed, during the interrogation period the government raised the issue of Saeed’s work with the house churches. However, they struck an informal agreement in which Saeed promised not to lead or organize any Christian gatherings, and in exchange the Iranian government would permit him to enter and exit Iran freely. In addition, the Iranian government encouraged Saeed to participate in humanitarian work inside Iran.
Upon returning to the United States, Saeed and Naghmeh decided to create an orphanage for underprivileged children. Saeed’s father gave them a plot of land that he had owned near Rasht, a coastal Iranian city along the Caspian Sea. The couple subsequently received permission from the Iranian government to begin the project.
Saeed and Naghmeh traveled back and forth between Boise and Iran multiple times between 2009 and 2011, each time without incident. Naghmeh recalls her excitement during their last visit as a family. “It felt like the orphanage was getting close,” she says.
By January 2012, the orphanage had six steady members on its board, and the finishing touches were being put on construction. Overwhelmed with excitement and anticipation, Saeed prepared to return one more time in June 2012 before the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Naghmeh and Saeed said good-bye in Boise, and Saeed set off, with plans to return the following month.
S arah Hekmati is still unable to speak about the torture Amir endured in prison, but the reports that she passed along via e-mail are shocking. For the first four months of Amir’s imprisonment, his hands and feet were constantly shackled and he was confined within a cell so small that he could barely lie down. Amir remained in solitary confinement for nearly a year and a half, during which time he was routinely placed in stress positions, and prison administrators would pour foul-smelling water into his cell to prevent him from sleeping. He was forcibly given drugs such as lithium; he was tortured by Tasers to his kidneys; his feet were whipped by cables; and he was forced to watch the torture of other inmates. Already of slight build, he lost more than thirty pounds on the prison “diet” in the first four months alone. The list goes on.
While in solitary confinement, no one in Amir’s immediate family was permitted to visit him in Iran.
Battered, Amir at least believed he would be able to make his case when his trial date was finally set. “The poor guy was thinking that, like in the American system, he would have the right to an attorney,” Sarah recalls. “We were frantically sending attorneys to Iran’s Supreme Court to defend Amir. The Court rejected all of them.” Finally, in December, Amir was put on trial on allegations of espionage.
Right before the trial, Amir was given a court-appointed attorney, Hussein Yazdi Samadi, who was known to be a close ally of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. The defendant and his “counsel” met for a grand total of five minutes. In January 2012, when the sham trial concluded, the court sentenced Amir to death. It was only once he received his death sentence that authorities finally allowed his mother to see him.
In March 2012, a higher court annulled the sentence and charges and ordered a new trial. In December 2013, following a trial held in secret, the court convicted Amir of cooperating with a hostile government and sentenced him to ten years in prison—a sentence about which Amir was left entirely in the dark until a full four months later, says Sarah. At the sentencing, neither Amir nor his attorney were permitted to present a defense.
Still, officials at the Ministry of Intelligence were sufficiently upset by the outcome of the retrial that Amir’s mother was denied permission to see her son when she came to Iran once more in March 2012. Her final trip to visit him in Iran came that June.
Shortly after Amir’s mother’s final visit, Amir’s father, Ali, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Between the cancer and the two strokes he has suffered since, Amir’s father is completely handicapped and requires constant supervision. Sarah knows that for her father “the cancer is not in remission. We are just buying time.”
Today, Amir is permitted limited calls. They last five to ten minutes, and they are closely monitored. “It is very haunting and chilling to hear his voice, because you know where he is calling from,” says Sarah. When he speaks, “he is always just asking about our dad’s health. Time is not on our side.”
Amir knows his father’s time is running out. “Our father is sick. He could be dying. And here we just have his son languishing in prison.”
Whether or not the President negotiates his release in the next month will likely determine whether Amir Hekmati, former U.S. Marine, sees his father one more time. For now, the outcome is in serious doubt.
S everal days after saying good-bye to Saeed, Naghmeh’s phone rang. “It was midnight. I got a call from his mom. Saeed had called her, saying, ‘They are not letting me leave the country. They’ve taken my passport.’”
Naghmeh learned that Saeed was being placed under house arrest. From July until September, he remained in legal purgatory, detained and awaiting a summons for questioning. Meanwhile, Naghmeh frantically tried to devise a way to come back to Iran to see her husband, but the government threatened her directly with arrest if she attempted to come into the country.
“She was hysterical, crying, screaming,” Naghmeh says. She said five members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had raided the house at six in the morning. ‘They came in, they took everything. They took Saeed.’ We didn’t know if he was alive.”
Saeed was taken into solitary confinement at Evin Prison, where his fellow American detainee, Hekmati, was sitting. (The two would subsequently meet after Saeed came out of solitary confinement and was placed in Amir’s ward, 209, which is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard.) For four months, Saeed awaited charges and trial. Finally in January, he got his court date. Saeed and his family were shocked by the charges.
Unlike its cases against Hekmati or Rezaian, the Iranian government never charged Abedini with espionage. Rather, the government charged him with “undermining Iran’s national security” through his involvement in the house church movement—essentially, that his conversion and practice of Christianity was a national security threat to a country that is more than 99 percent Muslim.
In so doing, the Iranian government appears to have violated its own laws and precedent by arresting Saeed for activity that the government itself had sanctioned years earlier.
“What’s frustrating is that it’s so obvious,” Naghmeh says. “The Iranian government has made a mistake [in charging Saeed for being involved in house churches], because they are admitting to the world that they are holding on to Saeed illegally.”
Like Amir Hekmati, Saeed was allowed a lawyer, but was only permitted to meet with him one day before his trial. And like Amir, in what was largely a show trial, Saeed was found guilty. He is currently serving out his eight-year prison sentence in Rajai Shahr, reputed to be one of the harshest, most violent jails in Iran, for the crime of practicing his Christianity.
Early on in Saeed’s imprisonment, guards frequently beat him severely. In March 2014, Saeed had to be hospitalized with wounds that continually opened and closed in his stomach. The injuries apparently can only be treated with surgery, yet the Iranian government has not given permission for the required treatment.
His daily diet consists generally of rice, a potato and some soy sauce. There is a prison store where he can make limited purchases, but it does not provide any clean water or protein.
Then, there is the intimidation from his former cellmates. Rajai Shahr prison is home to a large population of violent criminals, as well as Mujaheddin and ISIS affiliates. “He is the only Christian pastor there,” according to Naghmeh—and his prison mates clearly understand: an apostate is in their midst. Just a few weeks ago, Saeed was violently attacked and beaten. causing injuries to his eyes and nose, according to the American Center for Law and Justice.
Finally, there is the inability to communicate. Since his arrest, Naghmeh and Saeed have not been permitted to speak. Prisoners are supposed to have weekly calls with their families, but “the government has never given approval for the kids and me,” she says. “He has called his parents earlier in his imprisonment. But he has never been allowed to call me directly.”
The one “advantage” (if such a term can be used) of Saeed’s charges is that their preposterousness has given the international community greater leeway in coming to his defense on pure human rights grounds. (The international community tends to view charges of espionage, such as are leveled against Hekmati and Jason Rezaian, as matters to be settled between the host country and the prisoner’s native country.) Last month, Naghmeh was invited to address the German Parliament, and was also sought out by members of the EU Parliament. She says that the UN, too, has issued statements in support of freedom of religion in Iran that were in part inspired by Saeed’s imprisonment.
Earlier this month, Naghmeh testified, alongside the families of the other detained Americans in Iran, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The aim of the Iranian government,” Naghmeh said in her testimony, “is to break Saeed before they have to release him. Doctors have confirmed Saeed needs two surgeries. But my biggest concern right now is not Saeed’s physical health, but rather his psychological health. I often think about the condition that Saeed will be in when he is released and how our family would have to cope with that—what father will return to my precious children? Time is of the essence in getting Saeed out of the Iranian prison.”
As the nuclear deadline approaches and Saeed seems no closer to freedom, the question is now whether “too late” has already come and gone.
F or the Obama Administration, the focus is not on “too late” but rather keeping things from getting “too complex.” That is to say, if the United States allows other issues to be tied to the nuclear negotiations, then the nuclear deal itself may be placed in jeopardy. That risk has thus far deterred the Administration from linking the American prisoners’ releases to what Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, has termed “the biggest thing President Obama will do in his second term on foreign policy. This is [the equivalent of] health care for us, just to put it in context.”
For the President, the American prisoner issue poses an especially acute challenge. On the one hand, his office holds the gravitas and a sense of moral responsibility necessary to bring these American prisoners back home and reunite them with their families. On the other, the President is determined to secure a nuclear agreement with Iran, which he views as crucial to maintaining international stability and promoting American security interests in the volatile Middle East.
But linking the nuclear deal to the release of the prisoners brings its own set of complications. For one, the nuclear negotiations can be deemed simply too important to risk over the release of four Americans. “The nuclear issue poses such a national security risk that it makes sense not to complicate the issue by linking it to other problems that are just as intractable,” says Gary Samore, who was President Obama’s chief adviser on nuclear nonproliferation, including on the Iran file, from 2009 to 2013. Rather, according to Samore, it is necessary for the Administration “to make decisions about what is attainable, and how to prioritize the national interest.”
Furthermore, Samore points out that it is not clear whether addressing the prisoner issue has any more moral weight than pressing Iran on a wide range of other disagreements that it has with the U.S. “Both sides have a long list of grievances, prisoners being one. But we also have disagreements with Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.” So, the logic goes, why should the U.S. disturb the nuclear negotiations by raising the prisoner issue, but not address Iran’s systematic support for terrorist groups across the Middle East? On top of that is the difficulty that the United States would not want to reward an adversarial government for hostage taking. (Then again, this difficulty didn’t stand in the way of the Obama Administration’s exchange of the Taliban Five for Bowe Bergdahl last summer, or the trade of the Cuban Three for Alan Gross last winter).
The Hekmatis and the Abedinis, for their part, are skeptical not only that the two issues are separate, but that they are even entirely separable. Still, the families remain conflicted about openly advocating for tying the prisoners’ releases to the nuclear deal. On the one hand, the Abedinis and Hekmatis want to avoid antagonizing a U.S. administration that may hold the cards to freeing Amir and Saeed; moreover, in Amir’s case, he has been vocal from his prison cell about not wanting Iran to benefit from his wrongful imprisonment. On the other hand, there is a sense that, once the nuclear deal is done, any American leverage that could be used to free the prisoners will vanish.
“If this is the way it’s going to happen,” Naghmeh Abedini says, referring to a nuclear deal that leaves her husband behind in Iran, “we don’t know how often [the United States] will be talking to Iran. We don’t want [Saeed’s release] to be a part of the nuclear talks,” she says. Still, she acknowledges, “it just gets harder once a deal is made.”
Sarah Hekmati has echoed similar sentiments. While Amir has refused in principle to let Iran use his imprisonment as leverage, for his family, the reality is nuanced. “Amir is taking the high road,” Sarah says of her brother. “He does not want to be a bargaining chip. He does not want to set a precedent for future Americans who travel to Iran.”
And yet, “whether we like it or not, Amir’s case is tied to the nuclear negotiations,” Sarah continues. For her part, “I don’t see why [it shouldn’t be linked]. You are sitting face to face with [Iran]. You can’t just ask for the release of one, two, three U.S. citizens?”
Part of Sarah Hekmati and Naghmeh Abedini’s sense of this inevitable entanglement may have to do with the administration’s continual reiterations in press briefings and statements that the cases of the imprisoned Americans are being raised “on the margins” of the talks. If the meaning of this message is unclear to the public, it is equally unclear to the families.
“What is [Iran’s] reaction? In what context are they being raised?” Sarah says she has asked the White House and has yet to receive an answer.
Still, both Sarah Hekmati and Naghmeh Abedini went to great pains to underscore their appreciation for the U.S. government’s efforts thus far. “Since day one, the State Department has been following the case,” Hekmati says. “They have reassured us that Secretary [of State John] Kerry was engaged with [Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, that they had reached out to multiple nations to engage Iran.” Sarah also noted that the family receives regular updates from Under Secretary Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, as well as multiple Senators and Members of the House.
Similarly, Naghmeh sounded a note of appreciation for the public statements and condemnations that Washington has issued against Iran’s behavior. “There have been positives, in terms of seeing the government get more engaged,” Naghmeh says. “Early on in 2013 we heard that [President Obama] was able to speak to the President of Iran, and mentioned Saeed. John Kerry started giving statements, and over the past few months the President has gotten more involved,” including “visit[ing] the kids and me in January.”
At the same time, Abedini continues, “it’s frustrating because the more engaged they are, the more you would expect to happen in terms of Saeed’s freedom. The Iranians and [Secretary] Kerry have been meeting frequently over the past two years, and it’s frustrating that not much has happened” with regard to the imprisoned Americans.
Since the P5+1 powers secured the framework deal in April, Naghmeh says, torture against her husband Saeed has ramped up. “I am very thankful to the administration,” she says, “but the bad news is, we don’t know what the radicals [in Saeed’s prison wing] will do to him unless we get him out.”
Sarah Hekmati agrees. “As much as we appreciate the (U.S. government’s) efforts on Amir and the other cases being raised. our priority as an outcome of these talks is that Amir’s release is on the table.”
(The two women both noted in separate interviews that they have not been in contact with one another, nor with the families of Jason Rezaian or Robert Levinson. Abedini attributes this to the fact that while she “tried to reach out to Amir’s family,” her outspoken approach from the outset struck a chord with which the other families have been at times uneasy. Hekmati notes that her family “did not want to do anything that could harm Amir, with a potential death penalty still hanging over his head until his case was retried, but we also did not want to do or say anything that could potentially harm Pastor Abedini, either.”)
Unfortunately, Samore says, the reality is that formally linking the prisoners’ freedom to a nuclear deal is a more complicated request than the families likely understand. Whereas America’s détente with Cuba, struck last December, involved Havana’s release of American USAID contractor Alan Gross in exchange for three Cuban prisoners, Samore argues that politically, “I don’t think we are prepared for a trade of Iranian prisoners.”
Iran’s own internal political dynamics only add to this complexity. “My impression is that the opponents of [Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani are grabbing these people as part of a political competition within Iran,” Samore says. For example, he argues, the detainment and arrest of Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post was a strategy devised by hardliners within the IRGC and Iranian government to “embarrass Rouhani and complicate his efforts to achieve a nuclear agreement.”
Samore concludes that, if nothing else, these cases are a reminder to Americans that “traveling to Iran is not risk-free. There is no guarantee that you won’t get arrested, and there is not much that the American government can do to get you out.”
W hile Samore’s concerns are surely reasonable, it is this final point that has drawn pushback from at least one person who can directly relate to the prisoners’ plights. Sarah Shourd, a Berkeley, California native, gained international attention after she, her then-boyfriend (and now-husband) Shane Bauer, and mutual friend Josh Fattal were captured while hiking in Iraq near the Iranian border by members of the IRGC in 2009. Shourd, who was convicted (in another sham trial) of espionage and illegal entry—despite the fact that she and her friends were captured in Iraqi territory—spent 410 days in Evin Prison before Iran released her in 2010 on “humanitarian” grounds as a part of a deal facilitated by the government of Oman. (Fattal and Bauer spent more than 700 days in Evin prison before they too were released in September 2011.)
“This idea that there is nothing the government can do, I know to be blatantly false,” says Shourd. “I was at the center of the campaign for the release of my husband and friend. We had dozens of meetings with the National Security Council, the State Department, and the White House. “
Shourd, who supports rapprochement with Iran, says that it is lack of political will, rather than capability, that prevents the U.S. government from doing what’s necessary to free those imprisoned in Iran. In the hikers’ case, she says, “at the time of our detention, our government had no intention of in any way looking soft on Iran.” Even her Omani-mediated release, which involved a payment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to Iran, was seen in some circles as politically precarious.
“Ultimately, the Iranian government is to blame, and that is unequivocal,” Shourd says. But, she adds, “I do think there is accountability on both sides. I do think there are things that the [U.S.] government could have done that would have gotten me out a lot sooner.”
For Shourd, the same applies today. “To say that there is nothing that can be done [to free the Americans] is blatantly untrue.”
A s the countdown begins in earnest to the deadline to the nuclear deal, the families would not be faulted for thinking that there is little left that they can do to help free their imprisoned loved ones. They can continue to raise awareness about their plight and tell anyone who is willing to listen about their heartache, and they do. They can talk to the State Department, to the White House, and to their representatives, and they do. Still, heaven knows, forces far more powerful than the Abedinis, Hekmatis, Rezaians, or Levinsons have railed against the U.S. government’s approach to Iran of late, with little success.
On June 2, Sarah Hekmati, Naghmeh Abedini, Jason Rezaian’s brother Ali, and Robert Levinson’s son Dan all flew to Washington to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. That same day, the Committee advanced a non-binding resolution sponsored by Amir Hekmati’s Congressman, Dan Kildee (D-MI), calling for the release of the four Americans. While the resolution, which unanimously passed the House on June 15, is a gesture of solidarity with the families, it avoids directly tying the nuclear deal to the release of Americans. “The release of Amir and the other American prisoners should be unilateral and separate of any agreement,” Kildee said at the hearing.
If there is any consolation to be had at this moment, while their family members sit in prison, it is that their efforts still matter, says Sarah Shourd. “My message to the families,” Shourd says, “would be: just know that you are doing everything that you can. Don’t be afraid to really ask your government to take action.
“You’re not forgotten. Those of us who have been through this know what you are going through. You are not forgotten until this is resolved.”
On or around June 30, should the nuclear deal come to pass, champagne corks will light up the night sky in Washington. The foreign policy legacy will have been secured (at least, for the time being). The “Obamacare” of the second term will have taken hold. The policymakers will toast, they will drink, and they will toast again.
A few thousand miles away, at around that same moment, a new sun will rise in Tehran. And at that moment, three Americans, detained for crimes that they have not committed, will likely greet it the same way they have every morning for years now: imprisoned by an enemy government. A fourth, Robert Levinson, will add one new day to his endless abduction—if he is even still alive.
So perhaps the reveling policymakers in Washington will put their champagne bottles away and take a moment of silence to acknowledge another legacy—the one they will have failed to secure. And perhaps in that silence, they will pour out a bit of their drinks for the ones we will have left behind.
For in that silence, from the depths of South Florida, where the Levinsons wait; northern California, where the Rezaians wait; central Idaho, where the Abedinis wait; and northern Michigan, where the Hekmatis wait; a soft prayer will rise. And perhaps the D.C. policymakers will be able to hear the Muslim prayer, the Christian prayer, and the Jewish prayer, as the voices begin to rise in unison:
And the champagne’s flow will collide with the carpeted floor, and when it does, perhaps the next sip will not taste quite as sweet.
Mark Donig is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya and a JD candidate at UC Berkeley School of Law with a focus on international law and human rights. Gabriel Kohan is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School focusing on international law and negotiations.
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