Congress will consider bill that would apply sanctions to Iranian hostage-takers
At long last, at least some in Congress are looking to punish the Iranians for their blatant hostage taking.
Iran has seized at least five U.S. citizens on trumped up charges of espionage or "threatening the national security" of Iran. With the Trump administration seriously considering pulling out of the nuclear deal, the fate of those Americans hangs in the balance. The Iranians refuse to negotiate for their release, and U.S. officials have been frustrated by a lack of communication on the issue.
The bill, which passed without opposition, would sanction Iranian individuals directly responsible for holding our citizens.
Similar bills have been put forward before, and all of them pass, usually without opposition. Iran is one of the rare issues on which there is reliable bipartisan agreement.
Jared Huffman, a Democrat who represents my home district in California, told me he is voting for the bill "because it directs the president to impose sanctions on Iranian officials for ordering prolonged detentions and politically motivated abuses." When I was spending 544 days imprisoned in Iran, Huffman was vocal in fighting for my freedom, but he also voiced support for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran nuclear deal.
He and other Democrats believe abandoning the nuclear accord would close the most important avenues of communication we have with Tehran, and I think he's right.
"After the passage of the JCPOA, I saw first-hand how the newly opened and necessary diplomatic channels paved the way to free prisoners in Iran," Huffman said.
This new legislation is unique for two reasons. First, it provides a deeper and more nuanced description of Iran's taking of hostages as tool of its foreign policy rather than simply demanding freedom for those citizens being held. Second, rather than prescribing blanket sanctions that would hurt the Iranian people, it specifically targets officials involved in hostage-takings.
A surprisingly large number of Iranian officials travel to New York each year for the U.N. General Assembly. Not only president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, but lower-profile ones such as Masoumeh Ebtekar, Rouhani's vice president for women's affairs. (Americans may remember her as "Sister Mary," the teenager who served as the spokesperson for the original Iranian hostage-takers who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.) Or Mohammad Javad Larijani, who studied at Berkeley and is tasked with monitoring human rights. He is also the brother of the head of Iran's judiciary.
Rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea routinely arrest Americans on bogus charges. They usually want money and supplies like food and medicine in return for their release. These Americans are horribly mistreated and usually serve prison terms with hard labor.
We're not talking to Iran about anything not related to the nuclear deal, so abandoning the agreement won't matter to the hostages in the short term. The Iranians have been impervious to entreaties on the hostages' behalf by third-party countries like Switzerland, and even continuing the nuclear deal won't change that, either.
Sanctions on individual officials in Iran is about the only card we have to play. But with Supreme Leader Khamenei being the only official who really matters, it's not likely that sanctions will lead to any progress in returning the imprisoned Americans home.