Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) announced he would be introducing a bill next week demanding the return of imprisoned citizens and permanent legal residents currently detained in Iran. The bill also calls for a multi-national task force to garner their release. It also says the Trump administration should make the release of a group of six hostage “the highest of priorities.”
The resolution is bipartisan effort sponsored by a handful of lawmakers, including Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Ted Poe, Nita Lowey, and Ted Deutch.
The move is spurned by the high-profile death of Otto Warmbier. Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was arrested in North Korea for taking down a political sign. He served over a year in detention in the country, with advocates pressuring the Obama administration to work for his release. The administration believed it would be not be good diplomatically to make the case high-profile and essentially did nothing. His parents pressured the Trump administration, who finally won his release. But, he was flown back in a coma, and never recovered. He died shortly after arriving back in the United States.
Now, in the wake of the bureaucratic tragedy, lawmakers are taking more proactive steps to ensure this does not happen again. The bill calls for a multi-national task force for allies of the United States to work on freeing their citizens in Iran.
The six hostages that are held in Iran, are subject to the horrific human rights violations, and the bill calls for their governments—such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Canada, to work together to get them home.
Nika Zakka is a Lebanese native, but is a United States permanent legal resident. He is on Cruz’s high priority list after his family released a recording of him pleading for help and international intervention in his release. His lawyers say his health is in serious condition, and time is of the essence in this case. He is being held in the infamous Evin Prison in Iran.
Another on the priority list includes Siamak Namazi, who is an American businessman and U.S. Citizen of Iranian birth. His family is likewise calling on the international community to get him out. Namazi and his father have received a 10 year prison sentence for spying, although the family insists the charges are false. The Namazis were a handful of several arrested by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to gain leverage against the United States. The bill reads that their true imprisonment was “in order to extract political and financial concessions from our country.”
When the Namazis were arrested in 2015, then-Candidate Trump tweeted, “Well, Iran has done it again. Taken two of our people and asking for a fortune for their release. This doesn’t happen if I’m president.”
Now, his family is calling on his to follow through on his promise. So is Ted Cruz.
“As the Trump administration reviews U.S. policy toward Iran, I urge the President to make securing the unconditional release of imprisoned Americans and permanent legal residents in Iran a top priority,” Cruz said in a statement. “Nizar Zakka, who is on his fifth hunger strike, languishes in Iran’s Evin prison. Siamak, an Iranian-American businessman, and his father Baquer are serving 10 year prison sentences. Meanwhile, Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, has been missing since 2007. The Iranian regime must be held firmly accountable after the last eight years in which the U.S. policy towards Iran was based on weakness and appeasement. The U.S. should do all that is possible, including exploring opportunities to establish a multinational task force with our allies in order to free all those unjustly detained by Iran, bring them safely home, and reunite them with their families.”
The Trump administration has expressed that international prisoners are a top priority, especially after the death of Warmbier. In fact, they recently navigated the successful release of an Egyptian-American charity worker who was imprisoned in Cairo three years ago.
However, with Iran, however, the situation becomes stickier because the diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran have been more than strained during the brief Trump administration. Iranian-backed forces , the Hezbollah, have clashed with Syrian forces as the U.S. Assists the beleaguered country in its war against the Islamic State. Recent actions have violated peace agreements designed to avoid military conflict between Russia and the United States. Now, the Trump administration has authorized military action against Iranian forces in Syria.
Now, trying to negotiate the release of prisoners may be a bit of a problem. But, the White House has levied economic sanctions against Iran over human rights abuses in the prisons, particularly targeted at Sohrab Sulemani, the head of the prison system that runs the notorious Evin Prison. Most of the United States citizens which Cruz is petitioning for release are held in that facility. The prison, established in 1979, is specifically for political prisoners.