Vienna Dispatch: Families of Americans Imprisoned by Iran Spotlight Human Rights Abuses

Human rights activists have added a new dimension of coverage to the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna between the P5+1 global powers and Iran, despite declarations by top American officials that they would prefer not to let human rights issues interfere with sealing a nuclear deal.

The families of Americans jailed in Iran arrived early in Vienna to express concerns that the deal would have the United States abandoning what leverage it has left over Iran without securing the release of their loved ones. The Wall Street Journal noted that the dynamic has become especially pressing given that Western and Iranian officials are expected to seal a final agreement in the coming days:

Relatives of the imprisoned Americans have increasingly voiced their concerns in recent months that the Obama administration could reach a nuclear accord with Iran–potentially freeing up hundreds of billions of dollars of Tehran’s oil wealth–without their family members being released.

Iran currently holds three Americans known to be alive: Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati. The prisoners are held in Evin prison, one of Iran’s most notorious jails and a focal point of human rights criticism. Another American, retired FBI agent, Bob Levinson, went missing in Iran eight years ago. Levinson’s whereabouts remains unknown.

Amir Hekmati’s family explicitly linked the nuclear deal’s success or failure to his fate, with his sister declaring to journalists that “we welcome all efforts to free Amir. But if he’s not home, they haven’t done enough.” Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter, was imprisoned by Iran in 2014 and charged with espionage. His brother, Ali Rezaian, told reporters in Vienna that the talks were “a unique opportunity to speak with journalists and Iran experts and remind them of Iran’s cruel and unjust treatment of Jason for nearly a year.”

The issue is likely to rebound politically as Congress takes up an expected agreement. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) implicitly criticized the administration at a recent hearing for trying to separate the nuclear issue from broader concerns over Iranian behavior, including human rights behavior:

[F]or the next thirty days, U.S. negotiators will sit across from their Iranian counterparts. I appreciate their efforts made to raise these cases at every meeting, but the time has come to turn up the pressure… We’ve been told for a variety of reasons why the nuclear issue should be dealt with separately [It is] about respect for human rights and human dignity, and it’s about justice. The United States government must not rest until Amir Hekmati, Jason Rezaian, Saeed Abedini, and my constituent Bob Levinson are home.

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