The Biden administration is urging a 77-year-old former U.S. hostage in Iran to call off a hunger strike in Vienna aimed at pressing for a U.S.-Iranian deal to free Americans and other Westerners of Iranian origin detained in Iran.
Barry Rosen said in a Twitter video that he began the hunger strike Wednesday outside Vienna's Palais Coburg hotel, the main venue for separate U.S.-Iran indirect talks about reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The JCPOA is a 2015 deal in which Iran promised to constrain its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief from the U.S. and other world powers.
Rosen had arrived in Vienna Wednesday morning local time on a flight from New York. He was among 52 Americans taken hostage in Tehran by Islamists who seized the U.S. embassy in 1979, when the country's Islamic Revolution overthrew a U.S.-backed monarchy.
Rosen started the hunger strike a day before the 41st anniversary of his and other American hostages' release on Jan. 20, 1980. His protest aims to raise awareness about the plight of at least a dozen Iranians with dual nationalities, four of them Americans, who are detained in Iran or barred from leaving the country.
In an email sent to VOA on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department praised Rosen and the other U.S. embassy hostages as heroes and said it was moved by his commitment to the release of wrongfully detained Americans in Iran. U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley would meet with Rosen in Vienna, the email continued, and tell him he does not need to go on a hunger strike because the Biden administration shares that commitment.
"We strongly discourage him from doing so in the interest of his health," a State Department spokesperson wrote.
Detainees in limbo
In the United States' view, the American and other Western detainees of Iranian origin are hostages. Washington believes Iran has falsely accused them of security offenses so it can use them as bargaining chips to extract diplomatic concessions from the West. Iran insists any dual nationals whom it releases should be part of a prisoner swap, including for Iranians charged with or convicted of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and other offenses.
"Special Envoy Malley speaks regularly with the families of [detained Americans] Emad Shargi, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, who is also a U.K. citizen, and continues to pursue efforts to secure their release and reunite them with their families," the State Department spokesperson said.
In a Tuesday interview with VOA Persian before departing for Vienna, Rosen said he would try to meet U.S. and Iranian officials in the Austrian capital to urge them to change their approach to indirect prisoner swap talks that began last April in tandem with the JCPOA talks. Mediators from European powers, Russia and China have been exchanging messages between the two sides.
For the United States, Rosen said a new approach would mean telling Iran to release the detainees before any agreement to revive the JCPOA was reached. "And [if] there is a [nuclear] deal, I want to make sure that Iran knows that if they take hostages again, whatever is negotiated is over completely," he said.
Rosen said such an approach would honor President Joe Biden's pledge to make the promotion of human rights a priority in American foreign policy.
In one of several Twitter videos posted Wednesday by Rosen, he said he met with Malley in Vienna for about an hour and had a "very good" talk, but the details were confidential. "I do think that there is a lot of support for the hostages who are being held in Iran. And I think we'll know more as the days progress," he said.
US decouples the goals
In its statement Wednesday to VOA, the U.S. State Department reiterated its opposition to making the release of the detainees a condition for a JCPOA deal.
"We have made it clear to the Iranians, and clear to the families, that seeking the release of our wrongfully detained citizens in Iran is a priority and that talks on their release should proceed regardless of what happens with respect to the JCPOA," the State Department spokesperson said.
A spokesman for the government of former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who left office in August, had said the previous month that Tehran was willing to exchange prisoners with the United States as a humanitarian gesture, provided that such a swap includes the release of Iranians detained in the U.S. and in unspecified other countries "at the behest of America."
Barbara Slavin, an Iran analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council and an advocate of reviving the JCPOA, told VOA she sympathized with Rosen but did not believe the United States should condition a JCPOA deal on Iran releasing the Western dual nationals.
"The nuclear talks are difficult enough. Also, Iran should release these people whether the Vienna negotiations succeed or not," she wrote in a Tuesday message.
In his VOA interview, Rosen said he also would try to press Iranian negotiators in Vienna to change their approach to a prisoner swap by urging them to return to Iran's cultural tradition of being hospitable toward guests and visitors.
"Iranians know how important it is to think of the connectivity between them and other people in the world," Rosen said. "This is a culture that is over 2,500 years old. But under this regime, Iran is acting as if it were a country of wild animals. Iranian leaders should be ashamed of themselves."
Rosen said he had not heard from any Iranian officials about whether they would accept his request to meet with them.
The best way to persuade Iran to change course, Slavin said, is to show it hurts itself by scaring away dual nationals, who fear that if they visit the country, they will not be able to leave. "Iran will never reach anything close to its potential while it continues to alienate much of its diaspora and remains estranged from the U.S.," she said.
This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Click here for the original Persian version of the story. VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report, in which some information came from Reuters