This summer I spent a week in Vienna during the Iran deal negotiations with Amir Hekmati’s family. Hekmati, a decorated Marine Corps veteran, travelled to Iran about four and a half years ago to visit his aging grandmother with the permission of the Iranian government, was subsequently arrested and has been effectively held hostage ever since.
Although I do not speak for his family in this piece, after much thought and with no small degree of trepidation, I decided to support the administration’s deal with Iran. I did so because President Obama was right that decades of sanctions had not led Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions; it had pushed them to the brink of full nuclear capability.
I did so because what I had hoped would be an adult debate of substance in Congress turned into a partisan vaudeville sideshow in which members with no expertise in nuclear physics often tried to lecture Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world-renowned nuclear physicist, on nuclear physics.
I had before me two choices: support a deal that could work and did not foreclose options if Iran cheated, or keep the status quo, which assured Iran a full nuclear capability. I also assumed that the thaw in relations promised as a result would bring Hekmati and the other hostages home.
I never expected that Iran would send the hostages home the day the deal was signed. I think those who did were engaging in naïve wishful thinking.
It has been five months since Vienna, however, and it is time to have a national discussion around the hostage issue.
To me, granted without the benefit of classified information, the state of play seems worse, not better — Iran has now taken a fifth American hostage —and I see nothing upon which to hang the proverbial hat of hope.
I may be wrong, and if I am, it would be nice for the administration to provide some assurances.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Iran could receive sanctions relief, and with it, according to Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, about $56 billion in frozen cash that the U.S. has been holding.
I believe it is now time to have a NON-PARTISAN, ADULT dialogue in this country about whether we should deny the Iranians access to their money until they send our hostages home and commit to ending the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence’s habit of “serial hostage taking” (to quote Hekmati).
I believe there is a strong argument that once the regime gets its cash, which the hardliners badly want, there is no leverage left on the hostage issue.
Too often, Americans take a simplistic view of Iran’s political landscape. That is a mistake and leads many to fundamentally misunderstand the complexity of the hostage issue.
The elected government of Iran, which negotiated the deal, is moderate. I believe they see the hostage issue pragmatically, as a roadblock to the progress they want for Iran economically and in terms of emerging from isolation.
The hardliners; who control the judiciary, the Ministry of Intelligence and the Revolutionary Guards, see the hostages as a vehicle to continue the rhetoric of the revolution — their very existence requires a state of conflict with the West.
I raise the issue of the frozen assets because, for all their nationalistic rhetoric, the hardliners badly need that money to line their pockets, to finance the apparatus of the regime and, to an extent, to strengthen the Iranian economy as a hedge against a popular revolt.
I believe the elected government of Iran can be negotiated with and truly desires to rejoin the community of nations because in doing so they will vastly improve the lives of everyday Iranians, the majority of whom support the aims of President Hassan Rouhani.
The hardliners control the fate of Amir Hekmati and the other Americans held hostage. They must be brought to the table to expeditiously free our hostages. The money from sanctions relief might well be the leverage needed.
What I do know, for sure, is that Americans were promised, repeatedly, that the hostages were a priority for the administration.
I believe they were right not to put the hostages on the table in the deal, and so does Hekmati, who has written from prison that he did not want to the president to give Iran nuclear concessions for his freedom.
That said, at least since August, I have seriously wondered whether this really was a priority for this administration.
Actions speak louder than words, and while I assume more is happening behind the scenes, I have seen no action.
What I also know is that this administration can and should do far better in communicating with these families, in providing them far more proactive communications.
A great example — Hekmati’s family requested that the president mention Hekmati and reiterate the United States’ demand for his freedom on Veterans Day.
To this day, the president of the United States has mentioned Hekmati’s name out loud only once.
His family is told that the administration looks for “the right time.”
Pastor Saeed is rightly recognized at prayer breakfasts; Jason Rezaian was rightly mentioned repeatedly at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
What better day, Mr. President, is there to focus on a decorated veteran of the Marine Corps than Veterans Day, and why should the family even have to ask?
They are told consistently that Hekmati’s service matters to his commander in chief.
Mr. President, respectfully, do not have your staff tell them. SHOW THEM, SIR!
I do not have all the answers and hardly claim to be an expert, but having spent most of my 22-year military career as a special duty intelligence officer in the Navy and whose degree from the Naval Academy is in international security affairs (as well as engineering), I also do not think I am clueless.
What I do know is that Hekmati’s family (and all the families) live in a constant state of fear for their loved ones.
Birthdays and holidays have been missed, and there have been too many sleepless nights with them terrified that Hekmati would not call the next day as proof of life.
Mr. President, Hekmati has been ill for months, and his father has terminal cancer now requiring round-the-clock care and does not have long to live. When you ordered him to the Middle East, he went, no questions asked, and served with distinction.
He is owed a serious national conversation, and his family is owed some degree of comfort from his commander in chief.
While I have asked for months that you visit his dying father in Flint, Michigan, before he dies, more is needed now. The situation is dire; the time is short; and it is time for action.
Amir, Semper Fi. Keep the faith. We will not leave you behind.
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.