Four lawmakers have asked for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's "urgent assistance" in securing the release of all American hostages in Iran after the Trump administration's success in persuading North Korea to free three American hostages before official talks began on limiting Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Pompeo will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday to discuss the Trump administration's foreign affairs priorities.
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Ahead of his testimony, Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen (R., Fla.), Michael McCaul (R., Texas), Ted Deutch (D, Fla.) and Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.), the ranking member of the powerful Appropriations Committee, sent Pompeo a letter May 17 highlighting the plight of five American hostages being held in Iran.
The lawmakers said they are encouraged by the administration's plans to name a special envoy for hostage affairs, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, and said they hope "that this individual will have the authority to engage directly with Iran regarding our hostages."
"Although the Trump administration has repeatedly demanded the immediate and unconditional release of American citizens and legal permanent residents being held hostage in Iran, we are concerned that this has not been made a priority," the lawmakers wrote in the letter obtained by the Free Beacon. "Therefore, we respectfully urge you to make this matter a top priority for the department and the administration."
Advocates for the families of U.S. prisoners held in Iran hailed Pompeo's speech at the Heritage Foundation on Monday, during which he laid out specific demands that must be met for the Trump administration to agree to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Pompeo mentioned American hostages by name and demanded their safe return as a condition for a new nuclear pact, which he pledged would rein in a host of Iran's malign activities that fall outside of its nuclear activity.
"I will note for the American people, you should know we are working diligently to bring each American missing and wrongfully detained in Iran home," he said.
Later in the speech, Pompeo specifically demanded the release of "all U.S. citizens [held in Iran], as well as citizens of our partners and allies, each of them detained on spurious charges."
Critics of Trump's decision to pull out of the deal have worried that the U.S. government would have fewer levers to pull when it comes to negotiating the safe return of Americans who remained imprisoned in Iran.
Despite the skepticism, family members of the hostages and other advocates have argued the United States still has several options to use to develop a channel of communication with Tehran to seek the safe return of their loved ones.
The bipartisan group of four lawmakers pointed to a bill the House passed in late April, the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, that would require the secretary of state to develop a strategy for addressing the regime's hostage-taking. The bill also would impose sanctions on Iranian officials and others responsible for the unjust detention of Americans and other foreign nationals.
The lawmakers said they are particularly concerned about the deteriorating health of Baquer Namazi, an 81-year-old former UNICEF official, who has been hospitalized eight times since his detention, had surgery to implant a pacemaker, and whose health continues to decline.
Baquer Namazi is the father of Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman imprisoned in October 2015, just as the Obama administration was finalizing the details of its nuclear pact with Iran.
Just a few days after the lawmakers sent the letter to Pompeo, the family of Nizar Zakka, a permanent U.S. legal resident imprisoned in Iran since the fall of 2015, expressed concern that he had gone missing in Iran's prison system despite facing a severe health crisis.
In a statement released Tuesday, the family claimed that Zakka, had disappeared after having regular but unpredictable contact with them over the two and a half years of his time in Iran's notorious Evin prison. Zakka is a Lebanese citizen living in the United States who frequently advocated on internet freedom issues.
The Iranian government had invited Zakka to come to Tehran to give a speech at a conference, which he did just days before his arrest.
Zakka's family grew alarmed this week after the Lebanese embassy in Tehran failed to get an answer from Iranian officials. His disappearance comes roughly two weeks after Zakka began a hunger strike to protest the prison administration's refusal to provide urgent surgery.
"We urge all stakeholders to do more to help free Nizar Zakka and all unlawfully detained persons in Iran," said Zakka's U.S.-based attorney, Jason Poblete. "Thanks to the Trump administration's re-orientation of U.S. Iran policy, the world is watching these cases much more closely."
The lawmakers highlighted the case of Princeton University graduate student Xiyue Wang, who Iranian authorities arrested in August 2016 on what U.S. officials regard as false espionage charges. They also cited Robert Levinson, the longest-held hostage in U.S. history. Levinson traveled to Kish Island, Iran, and disappeared in March 2007.
As part of the JCPOA negotiations, Iran agreed to assist the United States in trying to gather information about Levinson's whereabout, but "it has yet to provide any information," the lawmakers noted in their letter.
Iran released five Americans, including the Washington Post‘s Jason Rezaian, in January 15, 2016, as part of the implementation of the nuclear deal. The Obama administration later acknowledged transferring $1.7 billion to Iran in cash to settle a decades-old arbitration claim between the United States and Iran.
An initial $400 million payment of the cash was delivered on Jan. 17, 2016, the same day Tehran agreed to release the American prisoners. The cash was delivered before the prisoners were released. Republicans labeled the payments ransom, saying they only encouraged Iran to imprison additional Americans and others with Western ties.