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Separate Paths: US Pursuit of Iran Nuclear Deal & Detainee Release

 FILE - Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, are shown at a political campaign event in Tehran, Iran, April 11, 2013.
FILE - Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, are shown at a political campaign event in Tehran, Iran, April 11, 2013.

As U.S. and Iranian diplomats sat across a negotiating table in Vienna in hopes of brokering a historic nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran, President Obama stood alongside his Brazilian counterpart at the White House with a message to the families of four Americans detained in Iran.

“It [their release] is something that we continue to push hard on, irrespective of the nuclear deal,” Obama said during a joint news conference on June 30. “We're deeply concerned about it. We spend a lot of time pushing on it, and we will continue to do so.”

While U.S. officials say Secretary of State John Kerry has raised the issue of the American detainees to his Iranian counterpart on the sidelines of nuclear talks, the administration has been clear that efforts to win the release of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini are a separate issue and will not be tied to nuclear negotiations.

When asked in January whether the United States would strike a deal with Iran even if all four Americans remained in Iranian detention, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said both issues have been raised separately.

“The fact is, we believe these American citizens should be released. And we also believe that Iran should take the steps that are necessary to resolve the international community’s concerns about their nuclear program,” Earnest said. “These are both priorities, but these are both priorities that are raised with the Iranians on separate tracks.”

Avoiding complications

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says the fate of detained Americans, along with U.S. concerns about Iran’s human rights situation and its support for terrorism, should all remain isolated from nuclear negotiations.

“You don’t want to get into a scenario where you are opening the door for the Iranians to try and bargain for certain things, whether it’s on Americans being detained and [have them] bring that into a negotiation about preventing them from getting a nuclear weapon,” Katulis said. “It would further bog things down and complicate things.”

While the administration wants to keep the issues separate, Amir Hekmati’s sister told U.S. lawmakers in June that the government can and should do more to win the release of her brother. She pointed out it took four years for her family to get a call from the White House.

In her June 2 testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sarah Hekmati noted the historic nature of face to face talks between the two nations.

“It does not make sense to our family how previous American prisoners in Iran have been released when the United States had no diplomatic relations with Iran and were not sitting across from them at a negotiating table,” she said.