Iran can show good faith in nuclear deal by freeing American captives

Montel Williams: How can we trust Iran on a nuclear deal when it illegally holds four Americans captive?

The headline for a recent Times editorial called critics of the Obama administration's framework for a nuclear deal with Iran who raise questions not directly related to the nuclear issue itself "off-base." Of course, no rational analysis would conclude all the issues between Iran and the United States, much less Iran and the rest of the world, can be resolved in this or any single agreement any time soon.

That said, the editorial board's argument was overly broad and, in my view, dismissed legitimate questions that must be asked.

In recent months, I have been highlighting the case of Amir Hekmati, a former United States Marine who, along with three other Americans, is effectively being held hostage by Iran (something Hekmati says his captors have admitted to him) to gain leverage in the ongoing negotiation. Not only has Iran held him illegally; according to Hekmati's family, the Iranians have tortured him, flaunting their obligations under international law.

As a 22-year veteran of the Marine Corps and the Navy (most of that spent as a special duty intelligence officer), there is no question in my mind that pursuing a diplomatic solution with Iran is the right course.  Those who advocate a rush to war misunderstand Iran's military capability, and those who claim that a fight with that country would be over "in a matter of days" do a significant disservice to the debate. There's little doubt the United States would prevail in such a conflict, but it would come at a terrible cost.

That said, because this deal depends on Iran complying with the terms and demonstrating its desire to rejoin the international community, it's hardly off-base to question whether Iran's promises are reliable. It's hardly off-base to point out that Iran has proved itself unwilling to honor the most basic of international norms (consular access, not holding prisoners extra judicially, not torturing prisoners and more) when it comes to Hekmati and the other three Americans they have detained.

Also, if Hekmati's Ministry of Intelligence guards are to be believed, his and his fellow Americans' captivity continues because the Iranian hardliners are seeking leverage in the nuclear deal. How, then, can we separate the hostages from this deal?

Again, I want a nuclear deal with Iran. I believe there are parts of it that are truly groundbreaking. But my criticism involves something that is easy for the Iranians to address. If they are truly serious about rejoining the international community, if they really want us to trust their intentions, then they would promptly release Hekmati and the other three Americans now being held as political prisoners. They can do that today, and I hope they will.

So too do I hope the Obama administration will improve upon its lackluster communication with and support for these families. It's time the administration said what is clearly true: These four Americans are hostages (it would be in good bipartisan company, as members of Congress on both sides have said exactly that). Frankly, the administration must also talk about these four Americans less coldly (one recent example was the White House's daily briefing on Monday). These four Americans have names; they are not "this issue," "our citizens" or any number of other monikers the administration has too often used in verbal communications in lieu of saying their names.

Hekmati is a first-generation American and a former Marine who is proud of his Iranian roots. He is strong in his Muslim faith but first and foremost an American Marine who stepped up to serve his country out of gratitude for the opportunities it gave him. It's very hard to see how an enduring nuclear agreement, one that requires us to trust Iran's intentions, can be reached in good faith while the regime illegally holds and allegedly tortures Americans.

Raising this issue now constitutes neither "moving the goal post" nor "changing the playing field," as the editorial board wrote. Rather, it's the Iranians themselves who are doing just that by holding four Americans hostage as political prisoners in an attempt to improve their field position.

Montel Williams, a graduate of the Naval Academy who served 22 years in the military, was the host of "The Montel Williams Show," one of the nation's longest-running talk shows. Follow him on Twitter at @montel_williams. To learn more about Amir Hekmati's case, click here.

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