Relatives of three Americans imprisoned in Iran expressed optimism on Wednesday that the nuclear agreement reached in Vienna had removed a significant political obstacle to the United States government’s efforts to secure their release.
But the relatives also said they had received no specific indications that anything had changed, tempering their excitement.
“We obviously hope that this is moving on, and now we can see some movement,” said Sarah Hekmati, sister of Amir Hekmati, the longest-held prisoner, a Marine veteran from Flint, Mich., who was seized while visiting Tehran in August 2011. “We feel there were delays in Amir’s case as a result of what was going to happen,” she said, referring to the nuclear negotiations, which concluded on Tuesday.
In telephone interviews, Ms. Hekmati and relatives of the other prisoners all said they believed that if the negotiators had failed to reach an agreement, the prospects for their own happy family reunions would have diminished drastically.
The fates of the American prisoners were tangential to the nuclear dispute. But the prisoners — Mr. Hekmati, 31; Saeed Abedini, 35, a pastor from Boise, Idaho; and Jason Rezaian, 39, of Marin, Calif., The Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent — plus a fourth American, Robert A. Levinson, 67, a retired F.B.I. agent from South Florida who vanished in Iran eight years ago, became an increasingly emotional side issue.
The prisoners have all declared innocence of any wrongdoing, and their relatives accused Iran of essentially using them as hostages for bargaining leverage. Both houses of Congress unanimously called for their release and suggested such a move by Iran would be seen as a sign of sincerity in its desire for improved relations.
Obama administration officials repeatedly called for the men’s release and for information about Mr. Levinson in discussions with their Iranian counterparts during the nuclear negotiations.
Ali Rezaian, the brother of Jason Rezaian, who has been incarcerated for nearly a year and could face a 20-year sentence for accusations of espionage and unfriendly acts, said his brother’s prosecution was “no longer something that could be tied to a nuclear agreement.”
Jason Rezaian’s trial, which began in May and is closed to the public, has not yet concluded. While Ali Rezaian was not sure what would happen next with his brother’s case, he said, “I just want him home.”
Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Mr. Abedini, who was sentenced in 2013 to eight years’ imprisonment for undermining national security after he had conducted church services in private Iranian homes, said she had never expected the release of her husband to be part of a nuclear agreement. But she still expressed disappointment, asserting that the United States lost leverage by agreeing to the nuclear accord without having first secured the release of the prisoners.
At the same time, she said, “if the deal had not been reached, it would have been much harder to get my husband out; there’s now more hope of trying to get him out.”
While the three prisoners are American citizens, Iran considers them to be Iranian because they are of Iranian descent, and the government has refused to grant them the consular access rights afforded to foreigners who are arrested in the country. Iranian officials have also said they have no knowledge of Mr. Levinson’s whereabouts.
Representative Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat whose constituents include the Hekmati family, said he believed the nuclear talks had opened a path for resolving the prisoner issue.
“While the agreement itself doesn’t facilitate the release of these Americans, had these negotiations failed, the prospects would have been even less certain,” Mr. Kildee said.
The Hekmati family, he said, “share my view that this creates space, and potentially an opportunity to act.”
President Obama, who defended the nuclear agreement at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, responded angrily to a question that implied he had been content to conclude the negotiation without having first ensured the prisoners were freed. “That’s nonsense, you should know better,” he said. “I’ve met with the families of some of those folks. Nobody’s content.”
Mr. Obama also said that the United States was working constantly to secure their freedom and that “we won’t stop until they’re out.”
Correction: July 16, 2015
An earlier version of this article incompletely paraphrased Naghmeh Abedini’s comments about the nuclear agreement. While she said she had never expected the release of her husband to be part of the agreement, she also expressed disappointment that the United States had not used the leverage of the negotiations to secure the release of all American prisoners in Iran before the accord was announced.
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(via NY Times)