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By Robert C. O’Brien, opinion contributor — 09/26/18 02:30 PM EDT
One of the most under reported foreign policy stories today is the fact the Americans are held hostage by terrorist networks and pariah states throughout the Middle East. The worst kidnapper of Americans is a nation state — Iran.
Iran has pursued a deliberate policy of kidnapping and unjustly detaining innocent Americans since the very beginning of its revolutionary regime. In its infancy in 1979, the regime violated every norm of diplomacy for the past two millennia by holding 52 American diplomats from our embassy in Tehran hostage for 444 days.Since then, Iran, either directly or through Hizbollah or its other proxies, has kidnapped American diplomats, hikers, students, tourists, naturalized United States citizens visiting their families in Iran, businessmen and sailors. Iran sadly continues this uncivilized and unethical conduct even today.
Bob Levinson’s family has been trying to bring him home for over 11 years. Bob has missed his children’s and grandchildren’s weddings, graduations, baptisms, first communions and birthdays for over a decade. Cruelly, since admitting that Iran held Bob in custody back in 2007, the regime now denies knowing anything about him. It is hard to imagine the suffering Iran has inflicted on Bob and his family for more than a decade.
Siamak Namazi is being held under terrible conditions in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. Siamak is a well-respected American-Iranian businessman and Wilson Scholar. For two years, he has been held by Iran for the sole purpose of being used as a bargaining chip with America. When the JCPOA was agreed to on July 14, 2015, Iran released a handful of Americans but not Siamak, who they are holding in reserve in the hopes of leveraging him against the United States.
Two years ago, Iran detained Princeton graduate student, Xiyue Wang. What was Xiyue’s crime? He was working on his PhD in Iran, studying, with Iran’s permission, the cultural history of the Qajar dynasty in the 1800s. Xiyue is a young husband and father. His five-year-old son, who is growing up without knowing his dad.
Earlier this month, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that Xiyue had been wrongly accused of espionage, secretly tried and imprisoned, and called upon Iran to free the young scholar. In prior years, the same UN body has called upon Iran to release both Bob and Siamak.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry told an interviewer last week that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif promised him that Siamak would be released shortly after the JCPOA was signed. But Iran has not kept its word. Iran’s Supreme Leader argues that Iran should be able to keep the benefits of the JCPOA, while Siamak suffers in Evin Prison.
Since taking office, President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that bringing Americans home is a top priority for his administration. The president and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo understand the terrible toll terrorist networks and pariah states like Iran take on our American hostages and their families.
The administration will not, however, further encourage terrorists and pariah states by paying millions or even billions of dollars to secure the return of our citizens or change our policy of promoting freedom around the world. That path only encourages more kidnapping, more pain and more suffering for Americans. We unconditionally reaffirm our no-concessions policy, to include condemning ransom payments to terrorist groups.
If Iran or others want to reintegrate into the international community, the first step is for them to renounce this barbarous practice and immediately release their American hostages. Kidnapping and bartering innocent civilians in a bazaar-like setting is unbecoming of a government such as Iran that likes to style itself as the heir to the thousands-years-old Persian civilization.
Relations between the United States and Iran can improve but will not get better so long as innocent Americans are held hostage. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will address the United Nations in New York this week. He should open his address with an announcement that Iran will unconditionally free Bob, Xiyue, Siamak and the other Americans held captive by his country.
Robert C. O’Brien is the special presidential envoy for Hostage Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.