By Erin Rodewald // July 6, 2015
(This article originally appeared at The Philos Project)
During Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979, radical Iranian students seized the United States Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. For 444 days, the Iran hostage crisis topped news headlines and shaped diplomatic relations between the United States and the newly formed theocratic regime in Iran. That hostage crisis set in motion the U.S. policy of economic sanctions against Iran.
Fast-forward to the current negotiations between Iran and the P5+1. The goal is to reduce sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to restrict its nuclear programs. With the new deadline for a nuclear deal having been extended to tomorrow, many question the sincerity of the Iranian regime and wonder why negotiators have turned a blind eye to an obvious indicator of Iran’s dubious goodwill and trustworthiness: the fact that three Americans languish in Iranian prisons. A fourth – who went missing more than eight years ago – is also believed to be the Iranian government’s captive.
This new Iranian hostage crisis rarely makes headlines, perhaps because it is inconvenient and inconsistent with a wishful narrative that the Iranian regime has changed.
In an address before the United Nations in fall 2013, President Barack Obama pinned hopes for a meaningful nuclear agreement on what he described then as the Iranian people’s “mandate to pursue a more moderate course” with the election of President Hassan Rouhani, and the regime’s “genuine commitment to go down a different path.” But the Obama Administration detached human rights – an exacting barometer of authentic reform – from its negotiating calculus early on in the negotiating process. What might have provided an important litmus test for Tehran’s true intentions was instead relegated to the sidelines.
While foreign diplomats have been haggling over centrifuges, uranium enrichments and breakout times, an unrepentant Iranian regime has ratcheted up human rights abuses against innocent American citizens with scant attention from the international community. Saeed Abedini – an American pastor and father of two small children – has been imprisoned in Iran, beaten and denied medical attention for nearly three years. His crime: sharing his Christian faith.
Amir Hekmati, a former United States Marine of Iranian heritage suffering behind the walls of Evin Prison in Tehran, was unjustly accused of espionage while on holiday with his Iranian relatives. He has been subjected to extreme physical and mental torture for four long years.
Jason Rezaian was the Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post. In July 2014, he was taken from his home by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and detained at Evin Prison where he remains on undisclosed charges. Although closed court proceedings began in May, Rezaian’s trial was halted and suspended indefinitely.
And then there is Robert Levinson, the FBI official who disappeared in 2007. He is the father of seven children and the grandfather of three grandchildren he has never met. He is the longest-held American citizen in U.S. history.
“I look at these [human rights] charges and it’s unreal,” said Rep. Michael McCaul at a recent hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that featured testimony by family members of the American hostages. “What does that say about our negotiating partner? Are they really operating in good faith?”
Rep. Mark Meadows likened the current situation to the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979. “In the late ‘70s, there were thugs and terrorists that took hostages, and they wore ski masks and dark clothing,” he said. “The only difference today is that the terrorists and thugs wear suits and give the illusion of being international diplomats – and that is not the case.”
Other lawmakers echoed their colleagues, questioning the prudence of finalizing a deal with a government that persists in egregious human rights violations. “If human rights isn’t everything … when you’re dealing with this kind of regime, how can you trust them on anything else?” asked Rep. Randy Weber. Rep. Eliot Engel said, “It is absolutely ludicrous that we are negotiating with a government that is holding our citizens to languish in Iranian jails.”
Even as nuclear negotiations continue, lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Representatives have passed non-binding resolutions demanding Iran’s immediate release of all American hostages. In introducing House Resolution 233, Rep. Dan Kildee aimed to “make sure that Iran hears loud and clear that they cannot be accepted into the international community if they continue to hold innocent Americans – who are guilty of nothing other than being Americans – against their will. The onus is on Iran to release these Americans if they expect a negotiated agreement or any other engagement with the rest of the world to be taken seriously.”
Kildee and other lawmakers were quick to add that they are not advocating a quid pro quo. “The release of the hostages should not be construed as an exchange for any concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities or any reductions in economic sanctions that have forced them to the table,” Kildee cautioned.
But is it too late to shape that perception? Or should the U.S. have elected to not negotiate with a rogue nation in the first place unless and until that government demonstrated its intentions with actions and not mere rhetoric?
If Iran does release Abedini, Hekmati and Rezaian, and if Levinson’s whereabouts are miraculously revealed on the eve of a nuclear deal, Americans will celebrate. But will that victory be tainted with the perception of concession and appeasement? After all, despite the West’s desire for a new and enlightened Iran, the regime that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in 1979 is the same regime that holds four Americans captive today.
The Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 gave Congress the ability to review and oversee any final agreements relating to Iran’s nuclear program. While human rights may have been sidelined during the crafting of a nuclear deal, it is Congress’s prerogative – indeed, its obligation – to insist on its inclusion in any final deal and to bring home all American hostages.
Anything less would constitute rank appeasement that would enable the worst instincts of a terrible regime. At this time, good ethics on Congress’s part will bring about sound strategy – for Iran will remain a grave and gathering danger as long as its anti-American, anti-Christian and anti-Semitic posture goes unchallenged.