Families of Americans Held in Iran Push for Trump Meeting

Families of Americans Held in Iran Push for Trump Meeting
Carline Jean/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
Families of Americans Held in Iran Push for Trump Meeting
Carline Jean/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP
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Family members of several Americans imprisoned in Iran pleaded for a sit-down meeting with President Trump late last week, but the White House has yet to respond to their entreaties, lawyers for the families said Monday.

During a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing held Thursday -- the 12th anniversary of the disappearance of former FBI agent Robert Levinson -- the families implored the administration to do more in seeking the release of their loved ones. Levinson, who was last seen on Iran’s Kish Island in 2007, is the longest-held hostage in American history.

“After three very different presidential administrations, we are no closer to bringing Bob home than when we started,” Christine Levinson, his wife, lamented during her testimony.

Levinson also pressed for Trump to meet with her family and the families of several other Americans held in Iran so he could hear first-hand about their efforts to secure their loved ones’ release and their frustrations with what they regard as the U.S. government’s inadequate efforts.

“I asked that [Trump] meet with us. He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t understand how difficult it has been for our family because he hasn’t talked to us,” Levinson said, acknowledging she had spoken many times to high-level officials in the Trump and Obama administrations over the last dozen years.

Babak Namazi, whose brother Siamak and father, Baquer, were arrested in Tehran more than three years ago and thrown into Iran’s notorious Evin prison, said he too would welcome Trump’s “direct engagement” in a face-to-face meeting and said he believed the president would spring into action after hearing their stories.

“I have a feeling, with the success he had with releasing other hostages from other countries, if he does meet with us and hears our stories, he will be further motivated to spare no efforts, given the urgency of my father’s health – I’m sure he would be very keen to do more himself,” Babak Namazi said at the hearing last week.

Omar Zakka, the son of Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese national and a permanent U.S. resident who also has been held in Evin prison on trumped up espionage charges since the fall of 2015, concurred.

The families’ attorneys told RealClearPolitics on Monday that the White House has yet to reach out to them. They were encouraged that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted about their cases the day after the hearing. He pledged to work to “secure the release of all U.S hostages and wrongful detainees,” and not to rest “until they are home.”

Still, the families argue, a meeting with the president himself could make a real difference. If they can speak directly to Trump, without the filter of his staff or top officials, they believe he would become directly engaged and fast-track efforts to win their loved ones’ release.

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who chaired the hearing, also urged Trump “to sit down with each of these families and then take bold action to return their loved ones.”

A senior Trump administration official did not directly respond to the families’ request for a meeting with the president but stressed that Trump is committed to working to free Americans hostages held overseas. 

“This administration has made it clear that bringing home U.S. persons held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad is a priority,” the official told RealClearPolitics. “The administration is in frequent contact with families of Americans held hostage or detained abroad to provide support and information, including through the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.”

Meanwhile, another American faces indefinite detention in Iran. On Monday the Islamic Republic’s court system convicted U.S. Navy veteran Michael White of unspecified security charges. White, whose family says he was imprisoned during a visit to Iran last July, is the first American known to be detained since Trump became president.

Just last week Trump spoke effusively about his success in winning the freedom of other Americans held in foreign captivity when he met in the Oval Office with Danny Burch, a former U.S. hostage imprisoned in Yemen for 18 months. Burch was freed in February in an armed raid led by the United Arab Emirates with help from the United States.

Trump also referred to additional negotiations to free more American hostages “going on right now,” but declined to elaborate, citing concerns about disrupting the talks.

“I won’t tell you where because we don’t want to blow the negotiation out the window, but we have a few negotiations going,” he said. “I love doing it because I love the end result. This is the end result. A happy man with a happy family.”

Recent comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani are leading some interested parties to believe the Trump administration is working hard to develop a channel of communication with Tehran. Rouhani said last week that he had been contacted eight times by U.S. officials seeking to restart a diplomatic dialogue but said he would only do so if Trump agreed to return to the 2015 nuclear deal and provide sanctions relief.

The situation involving Baquer Namazi, 83, is particularly acute given the dual Iranian-American citizen’s failing health. Namazi, a retired UNICEF official, has been hospitalized eight times during his three years of detainment in Iran. He had emergency surgery to install a pacemaker a year and a half ago and had a triple-bypass surgery before his detention. He was recently diagnosed with diabetes and more severe heart problems.

The family fears Namazi could meet a similar fate as Otto Warmbier, a college student who was released from North Korea in a vegetative state in June 2017 and died soon after arriving back in the United States.

“It seems as if every day brings a new ailment,” Babak Namazi testified. “The painful reality is he is living on borrowed time. We don’t want to my father to leave Iran in a coma, or worse, death.”

Trump has shown specific interest in the Namazis’ case before. At the height of his presidential campaign, he mentioned their plight and said he would not tolerate Iran taking Americans prisoner on this watch.

“Well, Iran has done it again,” Trump tweeted in late October 2016. “Taken two of our people asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn’t happen if I’m president.”

In early 2018, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a pointed statement, expressing deep concern about Tehran’s decision to return Baquer Namazi to prison in defiance of a recommendation by an Iranian medical examiner that he be granted at least a three-month leave to receive appropriate medical care. Sanders called for the immediate and unconditional release of all U.S. citizens “unjustly detained” and missing in Iran, including the Namazis, Xiyue Wang and Robert Levinson.

Wang is a Princeton University graduate student who was imprisoned in Iran in the summer of 2016 while conducting research there. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week expressing deep concern about Wang’s treatment while being held and urging the panel to “take every possible action to obtain his release.” Wang earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington, and his mother resides in the state.

Babak Namazi had been particularly critical of the Obama administration for allowing Tehran to pick and choose which hostages it would release in early 2016 in a side deal to the nuclear negotiations that involved a $1.7 billion payment from the U.S. to Iran. Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessmen, was not among those released in the deal negotiated by Secretary of State Joh Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who recently announced he is stepping down from that post.

The Namazis’ attorney, Jared Genser, a longtime human rights lawyer who has worked on dozens of high-profile “prisoner of conscience” cases, has said U.S. officials told his family that Namazi would be released a short time later, but not only did that not occur, the Iranians then imprisoned his father, who was in the country trying to negotiate his son’s release.

With the Trump administration taking a hard line on Iran and ending the nuclear deal, critics have said that the U.S. may have a tougher time winning Americans’ release.

Babak Namazi, however, doesn’t agree.

“The only way is through dialogue,” he told lawmakers Thursday. “We’ve managed to get hostages home from countries that we thought we were going to war with imminently.”

He was referring to the dramatic late-night tarmac scene last May, when Trump embraced three Americans freed by North Korea. The Americans disembarked from their plane smiling and flashing peace signs.

Jason Poblete, an attorney who represents Zakka and the Wang family, said the U.S. is one of at least 12 nations that have had their citizens unlawfully detained in Iran.

British officials last week stepped up their efforts to win the freedom of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who has been detained in Iran for nearly three years. The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, gave Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection, which means the country no longer regards her case as simply a consular matter but has raised it to the level of a dispute between the two nations.

The Iranians immediately rejected the designation as non-binding, however, because Iran does not regard Zaghari-Ratcliffe as British.

Poblete said the new designation in this case demonstrates a willingness on the part of a U.S. ally to escalate the dispute with Tehran and shows other nations with hostages held there that winning Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s freedom is a top priority.

His client’s case “and others like it are an international problem that requires multilateral cooperation, including from nations in a position to help, such as Lebanon,” Poblete told RealClearPolitics. “With political will, anything is possible.”

This article was updated at 2:36 p.m. March 13 with comment from the White House.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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