The gist of President Obama’s press conference on Wednesday was that he’s proud of his Iran agreement. And he may well be right that it's a good deal. Not being a nuclear physicist, I don't have any frame of reference to judge whether it blocks Iran's path to the bomb. And, frankly, neither does the chorus of those with knee-jerk reactions. Personally, I look forward to hearing from experts and hope there can be a substantive, mature discussion in the Congress.
Preventing a nuclear-armed Iran is essential, and I applaud the president’s efforts to pursue that goal diplomatically rather than militarily. He's right that it’s naive to think Iran was poised to capitulate completely, and he's right that solving every issue in one agreement is not feasible. And while the president even resorted to posing questions to himself that he thought reporters should have, he wasn't likely to address Amir Hekmati or the other three Americans held hostage or missing in Iran.
So Major Garrett had to. He pointed out one of those “concerns with regard to Iran”: that the Islamic Republic has unlawfully taken three Americans hostage (with one more missing and thought to be held by persons unknown at the behest of the regime in Tehran), and that Iran has used them as bargaining chips in an attempt to exact concessions.
Garrett asked the president why he was "content" to leave the issue of the hostages outstanding. I might have worded the questions slightly differently, but that doesn't mean Major was wrong to ask his question his way.
Amir has lost 30 pounds and developed a lung disease due to the squalid conditions in which he’s being held. He served his country honorably, and now he’s sitting in a damp cell while President Obama yells at Major Garrett just for mentioning him.
Obama countered by saying that he is concerned about the hostages and that he’s met their families. And he scolded Garrett: “I gotta give you credit, Major, for how you craft those questions. The notion that I’m content as I celebrate with American citizens languishing in Iranian jails. Major, that’s nonsense and you should know better.”
But I can tell you that the president hasn’t met with all their families, in fact, I’ve begged him on TV to meet with the family of former Marine Amir Hekmati or at least say his name out loud.
I’ve grown close to the family over the past several months, and I’ve asked the President to visit them before Amir’s father, Ali Hekmati, dies of cancer, so that he can hear personally how much his son’s service means to his commander in chief.
I understand that the president is busy even on a good day and that scheduling a presidential visit is challenging. But it's been nearly four years. That said, I do commend Vice President Biden for meeting with Amir’s sister and her husband at length recently.
What’s a bigger deal to me than a visit, a bigger deal than the fact that the hostages weren't released immediately as a result of this deal (which I think was an unreasonable expectation), is that the president didn’t even mention the four Americans until Garrett brought them up. Granted, he’s stated his commitment to their freedom in the past, but I’ve yet to hear a plan from his administration for securing their release.
“One thing at a time,” you could argue. And that’s fair. It’s difficult and delicate work to win the release of any prisoner unjustly imprisoned abroad, especially in a rogue nation like Iran.
I know this because I’ve been working for the past 8 months advocating for Amir’s release. I’ve been on the ground with his family, most recently in Vienna, the site of the nuclear negotiations, to help them make sure Amir’s case loomed large over the discussions.
I constantly assure the family that it takes time, but we’ll get him home. I tell them the story of Sergeant Andrew Tahmooressi, a former Marine with PTSD, who was unjustly imprisoned in Mexico. It took months to secure his release, but now he’s home.
When I tell Amir’s family this, they nod and they smile, but I can see in their eyes that they’re working hard not to lose hope. That’s the hardest part: keeping hope alive as the good news turns to bad, as reporters take up the cause one day and drop it the next, as the months roll into years.
This family needs more than handshakes and the occasional sound bite. It needs commitment and work and vision and a plan.
Major Garrett's job is to ask the president tough questions. President Obama, like him or not, is a brilliant, Harvard-trained attorney and a talented rhetorician when he chooses to be. I think those who rushed to outrage over the form of Major's question ended up accomplishing nothing other than patronizing the president.
You can’t solve all the world’s problems in a day, and preventing nuclear war is the highest priority. But if you ask me, these prisoners are a pretty damn high priority too. Every day they languish in prison as bargaining chips for whatever concession Iran might need next, our reputation grows weaker.
And they grow weaker. Amir has lost 30 pounds and developed a lung disease due to the squalid conditions in which he’s being held. He served his country honorably, and now he’s sitting in a damp cell while President Obama yells at Major Garrett just for mentioning him.
Just answer the question, Mr. President.
Ultimately, history may judge Major's question as a watershed moment in this crisis. At a bare minimum, anyone connected to the Internet in this country now knows there are four Americans being held hostage in Iran. The media should debate the way Major asked the question – that's healthy – but shame on those outlets who debated the words Major used without also telling those four Americans' stories.
Montel Williams is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who served 22 years in the Marine Corps and the Navy. He went on to host the Emmy award-winning "Montel Williams Show" for 17 seasons and is now a noted activist on veterans issues. Follow him on Twitter @montel_williams and on Facebook at Facebook.com/montelwilliamsfan.