Families of U.S. Prisoners in Iran Say Nuclear Talks Pivotal

Family members of four Americans held or missing in Iran said the approaching deadline for a nuclear deal provides the best opportunity the U.S. will have to free their loved ones.

“The next few weeks is a very crucial time,” Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband Saeed was sentenced to eight years in prison, told a congressional hearing in Washington on Tuesday. “We only have a few weeks left while we still have leverage, while the Iranian government will be motivated to release them.”

The U.S. and five other world powers are approaching a self-imposed June 30 deadline to reach a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions.

“My family believes this engagement is by far our best opportunity to bring my father home safely,” said Daniel Levinson, whose father Robert has been missing in Iran since 2007 while reportedly on a fact-finding mission for the CIA. “We need -- in fact, we implore -- negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking for Iran’s help in locating him.”

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held the hearing to highlight the plight of Americans in Iran as lawmakers debated what more could be done to bring them home.

‘Ludicrous, Outrageous’

Several committee members said the release of the four Americans should be a precondition for any nuclear deal with Iran.

“It just would be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include bringing home these hostages,” said Representative Eliot Engel of New York, the committee’s top Democrat.

Obama administration officials have said they’re working to free the prisoners -- Secretary of State John Kerry has said he brings up the issue every time he speaks with Mohammad Javad Zarif, his Iranian counterpart -- while stressing that the two issues are separate matters.

“I appreciate they’re being discussed on the sidelines, but they’re still not home,” said Abedini, whose husband is an Iranian-American Christian pastor in Idaho who was arrested in Iran in 2012 on charges of undermining national security. “Where’s the action? I hope there’s some pressure as this is a crucial time.”

Any deal in the nuclear talks would face a review by Congress, which could block an easing of sanctions.

‘World Community’

“If they’re not willing to become part of the world community, we should not be negotiating with them at all,” said Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican whose constituents include Abedini’s family.

However, Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat whose constituents include another of the prisoners, said their release shouldn’t be part of a nuclear deal.

“Iran must act unilaterally, and the U.S. must continue to press that point,” he said.

The prisoners’ family members expressed concern for what they described as the increasingly dire physical and emotional condition of their loved ones.

Jason Rezaian, an Iranian-American Washington Post reporter who’s been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison since July, has lost 40 pounds and “suffered painful and debilitating infections,” said his brother Ali. A closed trial began last week and was adjourned after a day.

Solitary Confinement

“Now, more than ever, I am concerned about Jason’s health and welfare,” Ali Rezaian said. “He is often kept in solitary confinement and allowed only minimal human interaction.”

The fourth American held or missing in Iran is Amir Hekmati, an Arizona-born former U.S. Marine who was visiting his Iranian grandmother when he was arrested in 2011.

“For over three years, our family has been living a nightmare,” said his sister Sarah. “We are in constant fear for his health, his safety and his life. The fact that Amir is the first American to be sentenced to death by Iran since 1979 adds to our fears.”

Sarah Hekmati faulted the Obama administration and the Iranian government for urging her family to stay silent after learning that her brother had been imprisoned.

“They both suggested that by going to the media, Amir would be put in more danger and his case would become highly politicized,” she said. “Our family learned later that our silence allowed Amir to suffer the worst torture imaginable.”

The committee approved a nonbinding resolution, H. Res 233, by voice vote calling on Iran to release the three Americans it acknowledges holding and providing all available information on any who have disappeared. Iran has denied any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts.

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