The Forgotten Few: U.S. Hostages in Iran
Robert Levinson, a twenty-year veteran of the FBI, went missing in 2007 off the coast of Iran while hired as a private contractor for the CIA. He was last seen alive in a 2010 hostage video, though it was unclear where he was and who was holding him. Iran has denied knowing Levinson’s whereabouts, but his family and the U.S. government remain skeptical. Currently, he is believed to be held in southwest Asia.
Levinson is one of several Americans currently believed to be held hostage by the Iranian government.
In 2016, Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi, were sentenced to ten years in Iranian prisons on charges of spying for the United States. Due to an Iranian law that allows only government-approved lawyers to represent defendants in certain types of cases, neither Siamak nor Baquer were allowed to hire their own attorney. Both men hold dual citizenship in Iran and the U.S. and their family is appealing to President Trump for their release.
The most recent victim of Iran’s U.S. prisoners is Xiyue Wang, a graduate student at Princeton University. Wang, like the Namazi family, was given ten years in prison for “infiltration… directly directed by the U.S.” According to Mizan, a news organization affiliated with the Iranian government, Wang entered the country “through the cover of being a researcher” to infiltrate “Iran’s national archive” for “the world’s biggest anti-Iran spying organization.” Wang appealed the sentence, but it was denied and he remains in Iran.
Politicking with prisoners is well-trod territory for the Iranian government. After the Iran Hostage Crisis, it became par for the course and one of the fundamental reasons that the U.S. does not have formal diplomatic relations with Iran today.
Even during the 444 days Iran held U.S. citizens hostage, it claimed that they were not mistreated and that their behavior was entirely legitimate. Released hostages have since recounted horror stories, including captors forcing two women to play Russian Roulette, a game in which a single bullet is placed in the chamber of a gun, the chamber is spun, and the gun is fired at someone without the players knowing where the bullet is.
Any tentative relations between the two countries became strained after President Trump’s So-Called “Muslim Ban”, which the Iranian government called, “an indication of the decision of the leaders of that country to discriminate against Muslims” and “an insult…to the great nation of Iran.” No mention was made of Levison, the Namazi family, or Wang.
Still, there is hope for de-escalation. President Trump is in the unique position to win both bipartisan support and ease tensions with Iran if his administration is able to negotiate the release of American citizens held in Iran and it appears he intends to capitalize on this opportunity.
On July 21st, 2017, he released a statement which said in part, “President Donald J. Trump and his Administration are redoubling efforts to bring home all Americans unjustly detained abroad. The United States condemns hostage takers and nations that continue to take hostages and detain our citizens without just cause or due process… President Trump is prepared to impose new and serious consequences on Iran unless all unjustly imprisoned American citizens are released and returned.”
In the coming weeks, President Trump will make a decision regarding whether to keep, renegotiate, or decertify the Iran Nuclear Deal. Decertifying the agreement would open a two-month window for legislators to either reimpose the sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program that were lifted as part of the agreement or find a new way to mitigate the hostility of the Iranian government.
During this time, the President would urge the United States’ European allies to renegotiate their own dealings with Iran in order to pressure it to cooperate with the United States. If the President’s campaign promises hold weight in these negotiations, we may see Americans returned home.