Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saeed Abedini

Why Are American Hostages Still Held in Iran?

Since President Obama initiated high-profile, high-stakes talks with Iran, the United States has released more than $11 billion in frozen funds to the Islamic Republic, and that comes on top of billions of dollars in new investment. To put just the $11 billion in perspective, that represents more than twice the Congressional Research Service-estimated official budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the group responsible for killing hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq. Now, consider that Iran’s economy had shrunk between 5.3 and 5.8 percent (depending upon which Iranian figure is speaking) in the year before Obama began his outreach while, despite the crash in oil prices, Iran’s current growth is positive, and it’s hard not to conclude that for the Iranian leadership, Team Obama has been a dream come true.

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Since President Obama initiated high-profile, high-stakes talks with Iran, the United States has released more than $11 billion in frozen funds to the Islamic Republic, and that comes on top of billions of dollars in new investment. To put just the $11 billion in perspective, that represents more than twice the Congressional Research Service-estimated official budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the group responsible for killing hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq. Now, consider that Iran’s economy had shrunk between 5.3 and 5.8 percent (depending upon which Iranian figure is speaking) in the year before Obama began his outreach while, despite the crash in oil prices, Iran’s current growth is positive, and it’s hard not to conclude that for the Iranian leadership, Team Obama has been a dream come true.

Given all that Iran has gained outside of the nuclear arena, what is most perplexing is how little the United States has received. Take for example the four American hostages which Iran now holds:

  • Saeed Abedini. Iran has long been hostile to Christianity. While the Iranian city of Isfahan hosts a large Armenian community which thrives today, the Armenian Christians settled in Isfahan only because they were forcibly relocated there from northwestern Iran as the shah at the time doubted their loyalty. Non-Orthodox Christians have special difficulty in Iran. Past State Department human-rights reports, for example, depict the disappearance and murder of priests and, especially, evangelical Christians whose community is small but growing in Iran. Abedini, a 34-year-old from Idaho, was arrested during a 2012 trip to Tehran to visit family and sentenced to eight years in prison. He is a married father of two small children.
  • Robert Levinson. A former FBI agent whom Iran alleges to have worked for a CIA contractor visited Kish Island, an Iranian free-trade zone which is visa-free, in an effort to research a cigarette smuggling case when he was seized by Iranian intelligence in 2007. While the Iranians have sought at times to deny responsibility or knowledge of Levinson’s case, the state-run Iranian press acknowledged Iranian involvement. He remains the longest-held Iranian hostage. Perhaps reflecting its role as the ­de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic, the National Iranian American Council has distinguished itself by omitting Levinson in its calls for the release of hostages.
  • Amir Hekmati. A former American Marine, Hekmati was arrested in August 2011 while visiting family in Tehran. Charged with espionage, he was initially sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted. While some Iranians might look askance at his military service, it should be remembered that because Iran has conscription, many male Iranian graduate students seeking to come to the United States to continue their education or to visit family have served in the Iranian military. The charges were more ridiculous considering Hekmati sought and received permission from Iranian authorities in the United States before traveling. Hekmati had briefly launched a hunger strike which he subsequently suspended.
  • Jason Rezaian. The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief, Rezaian was arrested on undisclosed security-related offenses on July 22, 2014, and initially held incommunicado. On January 15, 2015, an Iranian prosecutor announced that Rezaian would stand trial in a revolutionary court. His case is slated to be heard by one of Iran’s most notorious hanging judges.

That three of the four men are Iranian American should be irrelevant. Immigrants and their children do not check their citizenship at the door when they visit Iran, even if Iranian authorities insist they enter only on their Iranian documents. Ronald Reagan famously obsessed over American hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon. The “Tower Commission” found that Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Never has the contrast between two presidents been so great. Obama seems more concerned with springing terrorists from Guantanamo Bay than in freeing Americans held captive by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. And, while Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly condemned the Iranian detention of American citizens and called for their release, Obama and Kerry’s willingness to continue business as usual in negotiations and in payments to Iran suggests to the Iranians a lack of seriousness on the Obama administration’s part.

There should not be a single press conference dealing with Iran where the first, second, and third questions don’t force administration officials to address those Americans in prison in Iran. The hostages should be household names. When the State Department counsels quiet diplomacy, what diplomats are seeking is enough distraction to sweep the problem under the rug. They should not be able to. Indeed, there should not be another meeting held, let alone incentive given or payment made, until they are happily at home and reunited with their families. Quite the contrary, there should be no end to sanctions and punishment until the Americans—all four—come home.

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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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Obama’s Iran Deal Left Pastor Behind

While the debate about the nuclear deal with Iran centered on the way it legitimized Iran’s nuclear program, some Americans were devastated by another element of the administration’s rush to create a new détente with the ayatollahs. The family of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen who has been imprisoned by the Islamist regime for religious activities, was shocked that Secretary of State John Kerry signed onto the accord without also securing Abedini’s release. As CNN reported last week, the 33-year-old pastor is in ill heath in a dangerous prison. Given that President Obama let it be known that he had mentioned the fate of the American jailed for his Christian faith in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was thought that any deal with Tehran, especially one whose terms were so favorable to the regime, would also include Abedini’s freedom. But ten days after Kerry’s “mission accomplished” moment in Geneva, there is no indication that the Iranians have any intention of releasing Abedini.

But as bad as that makes the administration appear, an item first reported by Britain’s Daily Mail over the weekend makes the president’s decision to leave Abedini behind in his zeal for an Iranian deal look even worse. It turns out that the Mojtaba Atarodi, an Iranian scientist who was arrested in the U.S. back in 2011 for his work in trying to purchase equipment for the regime’s nuclear program, was set free in April of this year as part of the price paid by the U.S. for the start of the secret back-channel talks that led to the recent agreement. Along with three other Iranians involved in similar activity, Atarodi was sprung. According to the Daily Mail, in return President Obama got the negotiations he wanted as well as the release of two lost American hikers who were imprisoned when they strayed over the country’s border. But three Americans, including Abedini and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, remain in Iranian custody (Levinson disappeared in Iran and is unaccounted for). If the president has chosen to ignore the plight of these Americans who have been wrongfully imprisoned by a tyrannical regime and left them to rot in Iranian jails, then the U.S. embrace of Iran is even more disgraceful than even its most strident critics had thought.

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While the debate about the nuclear deal with Iran centered on the way it legitimized Iran’s nuclear program, some Americans were devastated by another element of the administration’s rush to create a new détente with the ayatollahs. The family of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born American citizen who has been imprisoned by the Islamist regime for religious activities, was shocked that Secretary of State John Kerry signed onto the accord without also securing Abedini’s release. As CNN reported last week, the 33-year-old pastor is in ill heath in a dangerous prison. Given that President Obama let it be known that he had mentioned the fate of the American jailed for his Christian faith in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it was thought that any deal with Tehran, especially one whose terms were so favorable to the regime, would also include Abedini’s freedom. But ten days after Kerry’s “mission accomplished” moment in Geneva, there is no indication that the Iranians have any intention of releasing Abedini.

But as bad as that makes the administration appear, an item first reported by Britain’s Daily Mail over the weekend makes the president’s decision to leave Abedini behind in his zeal for an Iranian deal look even worse. It turns out that the Mojtaba Atarodi, an Iranian scientist who was arrested in the U.S. back in 2011 for his work in trying to purchase equipment for the regime’s nuclear program, was set free in April of this year as part of the price paid by the U.S. for the start of the secret back-channel talks that led to the recent agreement. Along with three other Iranians involved in similar activity, Atarodi was sprung. According to the Daily Mail, in return President Obama got the negotiations he wanted as well as the release of two lost American hikers who were imprisoned when they strayed over the country’s border. But three Americans, including Abedini and retired FBI agent Robert Levinson and former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, remain in Iranian custody (Levinson disappeared in Iran and is unaccounted for). If the president has chosen to ignore the plight of these Americans who have been wrongfully imprisoned by a tyrannical regime and left them to rot in Iranian jails, then the U.S. embrace of Iran is even more disgraceful than even its most strident critics had thought.

It is possible that the three Americans will yet be ransomed by the administration as part of the follow-up negotiations that are supposed to come after the current agreement’s six-month period expires. There’s also the chance that Iran’s supposed moderates will reward the president for his appeasement of the regime by making a gift of these prisoners, perhaps before Christmas.

But no one who cares about their fate, or indeed about the lamentable state of human rights in Iran, could have taken much comfort from the answer given last week by National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden when asked why Abedini’s freedom had not been part of the deal. She dismissed the appeal by saying the talks in Geneva had “focused exclusively on nuclear issues.”

In other words, even though the president had already made a personal appeal for their release, by the time Kerry and chief U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman sat down to dicker with the Iranians, there had already been a conscious decision made to abandon the effort to free the Americans.

Was it too much to ask that Abedini and the other imprisoned Americans be let loose before any sanctions relief was delivered to the Iranians? Apparently it was for Obama and his team, who handed over billions in frozen assets to the ayatollahs in exchange for promises but not a single prisoner. Though the impact of economic sanctions and the threat of the use of force that supposedly President Obama has not taken off the table should have given the U.S. leverage to get at least these Americans home, if not a better deal, in his zeal for an agreement at any price, the president left them behind.

Given the way President Obama first ignored and then downplayed Tehran’s crushing of dissident protests back in the summer of 2009, he has already demonstrated that human-rights issues simply aren’t on his agenda in talks with Iran. The human tragedy of the three imprisoned Americans as well as the countless Iranians who suffer at the hands of this despotic Islamist regime doesn’t appear to matter much to him when compared to his obvious desire for better relations with their jailers. The lives of Saeed Abedini and the others in Iranian jails may not seem so important to those who foster delusions about détente with Iran. But if they die in Iranian prisons, their fate should lie heavily on the conscience of this president and all who serve him.

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