WASHINGTON (AP) — Relatives of four Americans missing or detained in Iran told Congress on Tuesday of milestones missed — weddings, graduations, birth of grandchildren — and asked U.S. officials to push harder for their release in negotiations with Tehran on a nuclear deal.
Lawmakers from both parties said that if Tehran doesn’t release them immediately, they would find it difficult to trust the Iranian government to adhere to terms of the deal international negotiators are rushing to finalize before the end of the month.
“If top Iranian officials cannot be counted on to assist these wrongfully jailed Americans, can they be counted on to honor the commitments they make at the negotiating table?” asked Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Call me a skeptic.”
After the testimony, the committee passed a bipartisan measure introduced by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., which states that Iran should immediately release the three Americans it holds and provide all known information on any U.S. citizens who have disappeared within its borders.
Daniel Levinson — son of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who has been gone for more than eight years — said his father has missed the births of three grandchildren, two weddings and numerous high school and college graduations.
“To say these past eight years and three months have been a nightmare would be an understatement,” Daniel Levinson said. “I am one of my parents’ seven children and my mother just marked their 41st wedding anniversary last month. … He has missed too much of our lives.”
He said U.S. officials need to step up their engagement with Iran on freeing the Americans as they meet in coming weeks to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. “We need — in fact, we implore — negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking for Iran’s help in locating him,” he said.
The FBI has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the return of Robert Levinson, 67, who went missing March 9, 2007 from the Iranian resort of Kish Island. The Iranian government has never acknowledged arresting him.
An Associated Press investigation published in 2013 revealed that Levinson vanished while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence-gathering mission. He retired from the FBI in 1998.
Ali Rezaian, brother of Jason Rezaian, a reporter from The Washington Post who has been held for more than 300 days for alleged spying, also testified. His trial began a week ago on allegations of “espionage for the hostile government of the United States” and propaganda against the Islamic republic — charges that could send him to jail for up to six years.
Rezaian, his wife Yeganeh Salehi and two photojournalists were detained on July 22 in Tehran. All were later released except Rezaian, who grew up in Marin County, California, spent most of his life in the United States and holds both American and Iranian citizenship.
“Jason became a husband two years ago when he married Yeganeh Salehi,” Ali Rezaian said. “Sadly, Jason has spent nearly half of their young marriage in a Tehran prison.”
He called the charges against his brother “absurd” and said he is worried about his health.
“While in prison, Jason has suffered painful and debilitating infections and he has lost more than 40 pounds. He also has chronic high blood pressure and a respiratory condition that is exacerbated during the hot summer months in Tehran,” he said.
Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he is “infuriated” and outraged that Iran, while sitting at the negotiation table, could “spit in our faces” by putting Rezaian on trial. He said he would wait to see the details of any nuclear deal, but thinks it’s “ludicrous” for the United States to sign a deal and act as if it’s business as usual with Iran when Americans are being held there.
Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Saeed Abedini, a pastor arrested in September 2012 and later sentenced for holding a Bible study session, said she is faced with the choice of staying with their two children, ages 8 and 7, or leaving them to travel and advocate for his release. To testify, she wore a necklace with a photo of her husband.
“Every day I wake up with excruciating pain … I wake up to the reality of our life,” said Naghmeh Abedini, who claimed her husband has been tortured and suffers internal bleeding.
Also testifying was Sarah Hekmati, sister of Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine who was sentenced to death for alleged espionage. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years.
She broke down in tears as she testified how their father, a former college professor with a doctorate in microbiology, is suffering from terminal brain cancer and has recently suffered several strokes.
“My hope, as the mother of two young children, was always to one day take my children to visit Iran to meet family and learn about their heritage,” she said. “It breaks my heart that my children’s only frame of reference for Iran is that the Iranians hurt the uncle they love.”
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