- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

In a private moment in a very public setting, Sarah Hekmati broke down as she detailed for lawmakers on Capitol Hill the strain placed on her family as her brother, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, languishes in an Iranian jail.

“Our father has terminal brain cancer,” Ms. Hekmati told a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which heard for the first time from the families of the four Americans believed to be held by Iran’s Islamic Republic. “Within the last year, he has suffered several strokes, and our father now requires 24-hour care. He holds on, hoping to hold Amir in his arms again, but fearful that he will not.”

The anguished stories told by Ms. Hekmati and other witnesses — of sleepless nights, missed birthdays and anniversaries and a lack of information about loved ones — came as the Obama administration and its allies enter the critical final weeks of talks with Iran on a deal to curb its suspect nuclear programs. Several lawmakers said the unjust treatment of the jailed Americans should have a much larger role in any final agreement with Tehran.

“This is something that should be talked about not on the fringes and the sidelines of the negotiations, but as a mainstay issue,” said Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican.

Mr. Hekmati was arrested in Iran in 2011 on what U.S. officials say were trumped-up charges of espionage, and was sentenced to death in 2012. The charges were later overturned, but he still received a 10-year prison sentence.

The Hekmatis were joined by relatives of two other Americans known to be held jail in Iran: Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, and Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor. Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, went missing in mysterious circumstances while in Iran and his fate is uncertain.

The outrage over the jailings was bipartisan.

New York Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel said American negotiators should make freeing the detained Americans a priority in the talks, something the Obama administration has rejected for fear it could undermine the nuclear talks altogether.

“It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include the bringing home of our hostages,” he said.

But at least some of the relatives of the detainees told the panel diplomacy and engagement may give the U.S. the best leverage to secure the freedom of their loved ones. Secretary of State John F. Kerry has said he brings up the issue of the American prisoners in every encounter he has with Iranian diplomats.

“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,” said Daniel Levinson, the son of Robert Levinson, who disappeared on the Iranian island of Kish in 2007.

The Iranian government denies involvement in his disappearance, leaving the Levinson family frustrated and confused. If he is being held by Iranian authorities, Mr. Levinson would rank as the longest-held hostage in American history.

Naghmeh Abedini also implored the congressional committee to use the nuclear deal as a tool to negotiate the release of her Iranian-American husband, Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor charged by Iranians with “undermining national security” for organizing a series of private “house churches” and leading Iranian youth to convert from Islam.

“We only have a few weeks left, while we still have leverage [and] while the Iranian government would still be motivated at some degree to release them,” she said.

House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said the treatment of the U.S. detainees raised larger questions of Iran’s trustworthiness to honor any nuclear deal.

“If top Iranian officials can’t be counted on to assist these wrongfully jailed Americans, can they be counted on to honor the commitments they make at the negotiating table? Call me a skeptic,” he said.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said it was confirmed that Mr. Levinson was being held in jail by Iran. The story has been corrected.

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