The families of four Americans detained or missing in Iran gave moving testimonies on June 2 before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the plight of their loved ones while calling on the U.S government to do more for their release.
U.S. officials say that they have raised the case of the four Americans with Iranian officials on the sidelines of the ongoing nuclear negotiations aimed at finding a comprehensive nuclear deal by the end of June. But officials have said that the issue of detained Americans is separate from the talks.
Lawmakers from both parties speaking at the hearing questioned whether the Iranian establishment can be trusted while it is holding American citizens as “hostages” and “pawns.”
Representative Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said: "It would just be ludicrous and outrageous for us to have a deal with Iran that doesn’t include bringing home our hostages."
Engel added that he would wait to see the details of a potential deal while adding that it would be wrong for the United States to act as if it's business as usual while the Americans remain in prison.
"You do not negotiate with the Iranian mullah regime as long as it is holding the hostages," said representative Dana Rohrabacher (Republican-California).
Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, who was arrested in Iran in 2012 over his religious activities, said the United States should increase its pressure on Iran to release detained Americans before the June 30 deadline.
"These next few weeks is a crucial time, if we don’t get the Americans out, I don’t know when we will have more leverage," said Abedini.
Amir Hekmati on Iranian television (file photo)
Sarah Hekmati, the sister of former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, jailed in Iran since August 2011 on espionage charges, said that Iran is damaging its image by holding her brother and other Americans.
"Iran wants to rejoin the international community, expand their tourism industry, and help their economy grow," noted Hekmati.
She added: "What message does it send to Iranians that live abroad when Amir is held as an innocent man behind the walls of Evin prison for committing no crime?"
Hekmati broke down in tears as she spoke about the terminal brain cancer of her father and the several strokes he has suffered in recent months.
Ali Rezaian, the brother of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who went on trial last week, in Tehran on espionage charges, asked for help to secure his release.
Rezaian told lawmakers that all the charges against his brother, who has been in prison in Iran since last July, are "false."
"Jason did sometimes write about Iran's domestic and foreign policy. But this is perfectly legal conduct recognized around the world as practicing journalism," he said.
Missing retired FBI agent Robert Levinson while in Iran (undated)
The committee also heard from Daniel Levinson, the eldest son of former FBI agent and contractor with the CIA who vanished during a 2007 trip to Iran’s Kish Island.
"There is not a day that goes by when we don't think of him, how much he must be suffering and what we can do next to bring him home," he said.
Levinson, who said his family has been in support of U.S. engagement with Iran, added that Washington should ramp up its efforts.
He said: “We need -- in fact we implore negotiators to take a more aggressive approach than merely asking for Iran’s help in locating him.”
Later in the day the committee unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution calling for the immediate release of the three detained Americans.
The resolution also states that Iran should "provide all known information on any United States citizens that have disappeared within its borders."