Trump Admin, Congress Offer New Hope for Families of U.S. Hostages in Iran

Senior administration official: 'It's been open season on Americans for too long'

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen / Getty Images
June 22, 2017

Families and advocates of U.S. prisoners held in Iran are encouraged by a new focus from the Trump administration and Congress to secure the safe return of their loved ones after experiencing several disappointments during the final year of President Obama's tenure.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee plans to hold a hearing in July featuring testimony from families of U.S. hostages held in Iran. Next week, the panel's Middle East and North Africa subcommittee will mark up a bipartisan resolution calling on Iran to unconditionally release all U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents.

The mark-up also will include previously passed language pressing Tehran to follow through on its promises, made public early last year, of assistance in the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, and condemn Iran's persecution of its Baha'i minority.

"We are trying to put more focus on the human rights issue and hostages issue in Iran," Edward Acevedo, a staff director for the subcommittee chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon.

The House action is an attempt to bolster a stepped-up effort by the Trump administration over the last several weeks to free other Americans and U.S. permanent legal residents held in Iran, along with additional U.S. hostages held overseas.

"We are hopeful that the refocused U.S. policy toward Iran that puts U.S. interests first will help bring Nizar and all hostages home," said Jason Poblete, a lawyer representing the family of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and permanent legal U.S. resident imprisoned in Iran's Evin Prison since the fall of 2015.

Republican lawmakers, as well as some of the families and their advocates, blame the Obama administration for allowing Tehran to pick and choose which hostages it would release in early 2016 in a side deal to the nuclear negotiations involving a $1.7 billion payment from the U.S. to Iran.

Ros-Lehtinen and other critics of the nuclear deal have said the cash payments only incentivized the Iranians to hold on to some U.S. hostages and hold out for more concessions. They also argue the $1.7 billion payment, $400 million of which was provided in cash timed to the prisoners' release, encouraged hostile regimes across the globe to take more Americans hostage.

Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, who the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps imprisoned in October 2015, was not among those released in early 2016 in a deal negotiated between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

His attorney, Jared Genser, a long-time human rights lawyer who has worked on dozens of high-profile "prisoners of conscience" cases, said U.S. officials told his family that Namazi would be released a short time later but not only did that not occur, the Iranians then imprisoned his father.

"In the deal struck in January 2016 for five American citizen hostages, President Obama inexplicably left Siamak Namazi behind," Genser said. "The family was told that Secretary Kerry had assurances from Foreign Minister Zarif that Siamak would nonetheless be released a short time later. But after the sanctions were repealed and money unfrozen, there was no leverage left to secure his freedom. Instead, just weeks later the Iranian regime doubled down and arrested Baquer Namazi."

The Namazis and other advocates for hostages held in Iran were frustrated with the U.S. government's handling of the cases in the early months of the Trump administration. However, they recently became more hopeful after several high-level meetings culminating in one last week with Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell.

"It was a slow start but after our most recent discussion with Dina Powell, it's clear that they are on the cusp of serious and meaningful action that will press incredibly hard for the release of the Namazis," he said.

Over the last three months, the Trump administration has secured the release of two U.S. hostages: Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian American charity worker, imprisoned in Cairo three years ago; and Otto Warmbier, a 24-year-old University of Virginia student detained in North Korea for a year and a half.

Warmbier, who was in a coma for months, possibly longer, during his imprisonment, died just days after returning to the U.S. last week.

The Trump administration is also focused on freeing Levinson; Josh Holt, a 25-year-old Utah man held in Venezuela; and freelance journalist and Marine veteran Austin Tice, who was kidnapped while reporting in Syria in 2012.

The Taliban released a video on Wednesday showing two men, one U.S. citizens and an Australian, urging Trump to negotiate their freedom with the Islamic insurgent group.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert has said President Trump not long after the inauguration made securing the release of Americans held in North Korea a top priority and directed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take all "appropriate measures" to free them.

A senior administration official told the Free Beacon this week that Trump has expanded that directive to include all Americans and permanent legal residents held overseas.

"[The president] takes all of these [cases] very personally. … It's been open season on Americans for far too long," the official said. "He's been exerting a lot of personal capital to get these people home."

Warmbier's death, the official said, was "horrifying" and gives the administration "a sense of real urgency" with regard to the three U.S. prisoners who remain in North Korea and those whose health is deteriorating in Iran.

"The ball's in [the Iranians] court, and whether they would like to do the right thing on a humanitarian basis," the official said.

Nauert and others have stressed that the Trump administration will not violate U.S. policy not to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom for the release of U.S. prisoners. However, there are a number of carrots and sticks the administration could use with Tehran.

Several prominent Iranian officials have sons or daughters studying in the U.S. on student visas, which the U.S. government could easily revoke. The U.S. government is also tracking several IRGC front companies operating in European countries and could lean on these allies to crack down on them more heavily. Additionally, the Trump administration could agree to additional prisoner swaps with Tehran, although those that the Obama administration agreed to in related nuclear pact side deals have received new scrutiny in recent weeks.