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, of Coral Springs, 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.”
Prepared testimony of Daniel Levinson, son of Robert Levinson
My name is Daniel Levinson, and I am the eldest son of Robert Levinson, who was taken hostage on the Iranian island of Kish on March 9th, 2007.
Unlike the other three Americans currently imprisoned in Iran, the government has never acknowledged arresting him. The closest evidence of this appeared less than three weeks after he went missing, when the Iranian state-sanctioned media outlet PressTV reported that he was “in the hands of Iranian security forces” and could be “freed in a matter of days.” 3,007 days later, we are still waiting for him to be released and returned home to us.
My father is the longest-held hostage in American history. No U.S. citizen has been held overseas longer than he has, ever. Our family’s hearts break for the other families here, who have suffered the wrenching agony of having their loved ones away from them for so long all of these years. Yet my father has been held 4 ½ years longer than any of the others. No family should ever have to go through what we all are going through.
To say these past eight years and three months have been a nightmare would be an understatement. I am one of my parents’ seven children, and my mother just marked their 41st wedding anniversary last month. My father has missed so many milestones: the births of three grandchildren, two weddings, numerous high school and college graduations. To put it simply, he has missed too much of our lives.
There is not a day that goes by when we don’t think of him, how much he must be suffering, and what we can do next to bring him home. In November 2010, we were emailed a one-minute video of my father from an anonymous email address where he looked gaunt, ill, and desperate. The last words we heard from him in that video were “33 years of service to the United States deserves something. Please help me.” Six months later, we received several pictures from another anonymous email address where he held various signs in broken English that appear to have been produced by his captors in order to taunt the United States government. We are extremely worried about his health. He is 67 years old, with several pressing health concerns including diabetes, hypertension, and gout.
My father had a long career serving the United States. He was still a contractor for the government at the time of his capture, and therefore the U.S. has a moral obligation to help bring him home.
We have sought help through numerous heads of state, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, NGOs, private citizens, and religious leaders here and around the world – to no avail. My mother, aunt, and I even traveled to Iran in 2007 to meet with officials there, but the trip ended with no progress made on his case. This has been a bipartisan effort spanning two U.S. presidencies, with lawmakers from both parties working to bring him home. We are eternally grateful for the efforts of members of this committee, including Congressman Ted Deutch, who represents our home district in Florida, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who have continued their efforts to highlight my father’s case on the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. Senator Bill Nelson has been our staunch advocate and has given us voice to the powerful. However, my father is still not here with us.
We were encouraged by the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and the appointment of Javad Zarif as foreign minister. They have sought active engagement with the United States on a number of issues, but to our knowledge, have not engaged on the topic of my father’s capture in their country.
My family believes this engagement is by far our best opportunity to bring my father home safely, and we need American officials to ramp up this engagement as they meet in the next few weeks over 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. It is true that those involved in the talks may not know where my father is, or what happened to him, but we are certain that there are people in Iran who do.
We believe that, if the Iranian government had the will and motivation to locate my father and send him home, they most certainly could.
My family will never rest until our father is back home with us, and we can only hope the members of this committee, along with those involved in discussions with Iran, share that unwavering commitment.
My father could be anyone’s father, or grandfather, or brother, or husband. He is all of those things to my family. He is an American. And America should not rest until one of its own is returned home to the family that loves him more than life itself.