U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's bill targets Iran over captives

WASHINGTON -- Accusing Iran of continuing to hold Americans hostage, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton introduced legislation Thursday that would slap sanctions on their Iranian captors.

The Republican from Dardanelle is calling it the Iran Hostage Taking Accountability Act.

The bill states that it targets "Iranian persons who engage in politically-motivated harassment, abuse, extortion or extended detention or trial of individuals in Iran."

There are several people being improperly held by Iran, Cotton maintains.

They include:

• Nizar Zakka, an information and communications technology expert and a permanent resident of the U.S. who has been held since the fall of 2015. Iran accused him of spying; he's serving a 10-year-sentence.

• Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in 2007 while in Iran. The Iranian government has denied knowing his whereabouts.

• Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman and scholar, who was detained in October 2015. His father, Baquer Namazi, was subsequently arrested. Both men are serving 10-year sentences for spying and aiding the U.S.

• Xiyue Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen and a Princeton University graduate student who has been held since Aug. 2016.

Tensions between Tehran and Washington reached a fever pitch during the Iranian hostage crisis, which stretched from Nov. 4, 1979 to Jan. 20, 1981. Fifty-two Americans were held for 444 days before their release.

Relationships have been strained ever since.

Cotton's bill calls for the president to create a list of Iranians who are "knowingly responsible for or complicit in...the politically-motivated harassment, abuse, extortion, arrest, trial, conviction, sentencing, or imprisonment" of U.S. citizens and permanent residents with significant ties to this country.

Those on the list would face sanctions.

The president would also be able to impose sanctions against any of their family members. Specifically, they could be barred from entering the U.S. and their existing visas could be canceled.

Iran, which called the United States the "Great Satan," hasn't changed much since 1981, Cotton said.

"Unfortunately, they're still holding at least five Americans hostage," he said. "They are an implacable enemy of the United States."

But they like to travel to the West, Cotton said.

"It's a very common practice for [their] children to come here to study in the United States, either at length or on a one-semester study abroad program or for spouses to come on vacations or to come visit their own families in the United States," Cotton said.

"If these Iranian officials are going to be holding hostage the family members of American citizens, their family members should not enjoy entry into the United States. And if they don't like that, there's a very simple solution: Release the American hostages."

Cotton's advice to other American travelers: Steer clear of Tehran.

"Do not go to Iran or do not approach its borders," he said. "There are many friendly countries in the region that you can visit where you'd be safer."

Cotton predicted his bill may get traction.

"Similar legislation passed the House with more than 400 votes back in the spring, so I hope the Senate will consider this and pass it," he said.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the prisoners deserve to be released, but politics can complicate matters.

"The most important issue right now is for the United States government to have a channel of communications directly with the Iranian authorities and to make it very clear to them that the life and well-being of these prisoners is of paramount importance to them," Ghaemi said. "These people should not be pawns in a geopolitical game between Iran and the U.S.

"They're all innocent. Iranians [are] using them as hostages, but there has to be a humanitarian solution that the U.S. government should pursue."

Given the lack of diplomatic channels between Washington and Tehran, it's important for the U.S. to rally international support for the prisoners, Ghaemi said.

He wants to see diplomatic efforts exhausted before additional sanctions are applied, he said.

"It should really be dealt with as a humanitarian crisis and not a foreign policy issue," he said.

A Section on 07/20/2018