Commentary Magazine


Topic: hostages

Does Obama Care About U.S. Hostages?

Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

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Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

While Tehran released the embassy hostages as soon as Reagan took his oath of office, the Iranian government was soon at it again, this time acting by its proxies in Lebanon. Hezbollah and affiliated groups seized a number of Americans, killing a few.  According to the Tower Commission report, Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Reagan’s concern for the hostages ultimately led to the ill-advised arms-for-hostages scheme.

While many of the hostages returned home by the end of the Reagan presidency, Iranian-backed groups still held a few as George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. Bush used his inaugural address to suggest that there could be U.S.-Iran reconciliation if Tehran showed goodwill by releasing American hostages. Bush followed up privately with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who in turn appointed United Nations bureaucrat Giandomenico Picco to serve as an intermediary with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsajani. Newly appointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put the kibosh on new talks, and Rafsanjani refused to budge because to do so would be to admit Iranian complacency in an act for which Iran still wanted plausible deniability. Nevertheless, with time, the remaining Americans came home.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have undertaken a broader diplomatic initiative with Iran than any predecessor, including Jimmy Carter. In order to get Iran to the table for nuclear talks, Obama approved $7 billion in sanctions relief which, when combined by new investment, means a $20 billion windfall for Tehran. Iran was desperate for cash, its economy having contracted by 5.4 percent in the year before negotiations began. Obama, therefore, had the upper hand and huge leverage. Just as the United States offered incentives to show good will, so too might have Iran, if indeed there was any goodwill on the Iranian side. That Obama did not ask for the return of Americans held hostage or did not insist on their release as a precondition really does set Obama apart. He seems to be the first U.S. president who has not prioritized hostage release in its dealing with the world’s number one hostage-taking country. Absent any other reason offered, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that Obama and Kerry simply do not care about Americans held hostage, and are unwilling to hold the governments responsible accountable. That is a tragedy that no Nobel Prize can erase.  

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Should the State Department Block U.S. Hostages Suing Iran?

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

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On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

It is rich that the State Department bends over backwards to enforce the Algiers Accords. After all, the Iranian regime has repeatedly voided its own agreements. For example:

  • The regime promised to lift the bounty on Salman Rushdie in order to entice the British ambassador back to Iran; the next day, it re-imposed the bounty.
  • The Iranian government pledged non-interference in Iraq, but even Iranian reporters noted that the regime violated its agreements with both the United States and United Kingdom.
  • In recent weeks, regime hardliners have celebrated the hostage taking of the 1980s in Lebanon, and castigated those who sought to strike deals that might compromise Hezbollah’s paramount role.

Iranian regime officials have—by their own admissions—not negotiated sincerely. Obama’s role should be to seek justice for American citizens; not sacrifice their cause for yet one more doomed attempt to bring in from the cold Iranian hardliners whose core ideological precludes an agreement with the United States.

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