National Security

Reporter to State: Aren’t You Overselling Relationship With Iran When They Refuse to Release U.S. Hostages?

Spokesman: 'It's a legitimate point'

State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged Wednesday a reporter's "legitimate point" that the Obama administration's self-hailed lines of communication with Iran had failed to free the American civilians held prisoner there.

After Iran captured 10 U.S. sailors Tuesday and held them overnight, Secretary of State John Kerry and others praised the diplomacy that brought the sailors back on Wednesday unharmed. However, Iran state television took care to release humiliating photos of the Americans with their hands on their heads.

Associated Press reporter Matt Lee pointed out at the briefing that these lines of communication worked with the sailors but had failed to bring home prisoners like Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and others held hostage by Iran, despite Kerry's continued pleas in that regard.

"Yet, over the course of three years and far many, many, many more face-to-face meetings and telephone calls, at which you guys say he raises the cases of the detained American civilians in Iran on every occasion, that not has yet been resolved. What does that say to you?" Lee asked.

"Um," Toner said.

"I mean, Zarif apparently delivered here, and on these other cases, he either hasn't delivered or you haven't made as forceful an argument, and I think you would reject that [notion]," Lee said.

Toner said Kerry did make a forceful case for the release of American detainees in every meeting with the Iranians.

"We continue to call on the Iranians to release these individuals," Toner said. "I can't speak to the inner workings of the Iranian judicial system or even the political system that they can't resolve this issue and return these individuals home. It's our strong belief that they should be released immediately."

Toner added that the State Department was "clear-eyed about the challenges that remain in the relationship."

"But you're not at all concerned that the hailing of this ‘diplomatic triumph' by administration officials … is not overselling the value of this line of communication, when on issues such as the detainees, the civilian detainees, the bad acts in the region, the missile tests, this line of communication hasn't produced anything," Lee said.

"It's a legitimate point," Toner said. "We still have issues of serious concern with Iran and we need to work at resolving those issues."

"Ok, but no one's concerned that you're overselling the value of the line of communications, that's my question," Lee said.

"No," Toner said.