Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman schooled a reporter on the proper terminology to use when discussing American hostages in Iran on Thursday.
"Did the hostages ever come up [during nuclear talks] or were they only a sideline issue?" a reporter asked during the State Department press briefing.
"Well the Americans, we probably legally would not call them hostages," Sherman instructed the reporters. She suggested the term "detainees" instead, and assured the press that "our focus of attention has been and always will be" bringing home the four American hostages.
The word "hostage" carries historical baggage in the context of relations between Iran and the United States because of the 52 American citizens who were held hostage by the fledgling Islamic republic between 1979 and 1981. The 444 day hostage crisis was a particularly poignant example of the Iranian regime’s anti-Americanism, which persists to this day.
Currently, four Americans sit in Iranian prisons for highly questionable reasons. Held captive for years, the families of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini and former FBI agent Robert Levinson have all become more vocal about the government's inability to bring home their loved ones.
All of the hostages have been held captive for years without any sign of progress in securing their release. The Obama Administration has been heavily scrutinized for not including the release of the hostages as a pre-condition to the Iran nuclear negotiations. The White House claims the issues are separate matters.
Despite the State Department’s wishes, the media—including liberal outlets—often refers to the Americans held in Iran as hostages.