If President Trump is serious about pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran on May 12, time is running out for American citizens currently being held in Tehran.
The challenge for the Trump administration is the same one that has vexed the United States since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. We must find incentives for Iran to release our citizens unjustly detained there, while attempting to deter the same behavior in the future.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump made repeated promises to free the prisoners held in Iran and to put an end to Tehran’s long and ugly history of taking hostages. It is time for him to deliver on those promises.
Xiyue Wang, a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s history department, has been in prison in Iran since August 2016, arrested on farcical charges of threatening the Islamic Republic’s national security. Last week, his wife, Qu Hua, came to Washington to seek answers.
“I want something to happen now,” she says. “I can’t continue like this.” She’s not alone.
Right now there are at least five U.S. citizens being detained in Iran, all on similar national security charges. Until these accusations are backed up with evidence — which has yet to happen — we should see these Americans for what they are: hostages.
Wang went to Iran to conduct research for his doctoral dissertation. He entered Iran legally, but shortly before he was supposed to return home, his passport was confiscated. Soon after, he was arrested. For months he was detained without legal representation in Evin prison. Later he was tried and convicted behind closed doors and sentenced to 10 years.
Despite Trump’s campaign promises, the families of Americans detained in Iran say privately that they have been frustrated by what they see as a lack of urgency from U.S. officials. “I don’t see a commitment that the State Department thinks that they have to solve this soon,” Qu says.
Before and after the negotiations on the Iran deal, American politicians opposed to it (including candidate Trump) said that freeing U.S. prisoners — who, at the time, included me — should be a condition of any agreement.
So far, though, there are no signs of any active negotiations for the release of the prisoners. At the moment, the only direct contact between officials from the United States and Iran are at the quarterly meetings to discuss the implementation.
American diplomats have used those opportunities to press the prisoner issue. Observers who communicate with both sides agree that Washington and Tehran are open to an agreement.
Iran hasn’t made it easy. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has forbidden his negotiating team from engaging in any talks with American counterparts beyond those occasional nuclear meetings.
So if Trump decides to leave the deal, he will effectively be abandoning American citizens — the very same ones he has vowed to save.
Not that long ago, when it was expedient to do so, Trump and other politicians loudly denounced Iran’s holding of U.S. hostages. Now there is a striking lack of outrage over the issue, even though Americans continue to languish in those same prison cells.
The truth is that this is not a complicated issue. While our intelligence community agrees that Iran is complying with its responsibilities under the agreement, we should use the mechanisms available to us to press issues of U.S. national interest. “Iranian leaders travel to New York,” Qu told me. “They do interviews and talk to think tanks. There is a level of communication. There are well-established channels between Iran and the U.S., and there are a lot of matters they can negotiate about.”
For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his administration, keeping the nuclear deal intact is the No. 1 priority (despite their public posturing to the contrary). All of their domestic political capital is based on it.
They will make concessions to save the deal, and releasing Americans should be the first demand.
The Iranian regime is on shaky ground. Recent protests and a weakening currency make that clear. But unlike the more extreme elements of the regime in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Rouhani has been bolstered by the nuclear deal.
Iran’s hostage-taking industry, which in recent years became a key tool of domestic influence for the Revolutionary Guard, is suffering from diminishing returns. International companies and their employees quite rightly see the thuggish Revolutionary Guard as a security threat, thus keeping many potential foreign investors from entering Iran.
As a result, Rouhani has far more control over the fate of these American citizens than might have been the case in previous instances of hostage-taking.
So now is the time for the United States to deal directly with its Iranian counterparts on this issue, demanding in no uncertain terms that the Americans must be freed and that this can never be allowed to happen again.
Failing to do so sends a clear message to the Iranian regime: that we don’t really care about our citizens abroad.
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