On Sunday, according to Fox News, Vice President Joe Biden visited with the family of Amir Hekmati, the former US Marine who was arrested on accusations of espionage in 2011, while on a trip to visit his grandmother and other relatives. Around the same time, President Obama offered his own words of encouragement to the supporters of Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post journalist currently facing four national security charges after having been detained since July 22.
Hekmati’s sister Sarah said of Biden’s visit, “He was very understanding and supportive and he reassured us that Amir has been a priority since the beginning.” The vice president followed up on the meeting by publicizing Hekmati’s case via his official Twitter account.
But these moves come in the wake of criticisms raised by Sarah Hekmati, who wrote a letter to US officials after guards in Iran’s Evin Prison taunted her brother by saying that the president had mentioned another captive American at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner on April 25, but had not mentioned Hekmati.
“Why has President Obama yet to utter the name Amir Hekmati?” Sarah Hekmati wrote. “Why on days significant for Amir — Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, the anniversary of his death sentence, the anniversary of his imprisonment — President Obama cannot say the name Amir Hekmati out loud, but he can say it for Jason Rezaian and he can say it for Pastor Abedini? Why when we make a request is it ignored? Why am I forced to write this email to you AGAIN, the same subject AGAIN, the same plea AGAIN?”
Fox News notes that the president mentioned Amir Hekmati in a written statement in March and raised his case in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013, nearly two years after Hekmati’s initial conviction on espionage charges. But Obama has reportedly never mentioned Hekmati publicly, although pressure from other circles may have helped to get his January 2012 death sentence overturned two months later.
While the president has given more public attention to the plight of Jason Rezaian, this too has been criticized as inadequate. The Salt Lack Tribune, for instance, points out that President Obama has declined to make Rezaian’s release a condition for the signing of any nuclear deal leading to the removal of economic sanctions on Iran.
The Obama administration believes that it would be impractical to combine other issues with the nuclear negotiations and would likely scuttle the talks. But some Americans have nonetheless insisted on this point, worrying that the conclusion of a nuclear agreement will eliminate US leverage that could be used for improvement of the human rights situation.
Over the weekend, Obama declared of Rezaian, “We will not rest until we bring him home to his family, safe and sound.” Still, some critics worry that he is relying on an illusory moderate trend in the Rouhani administration to secure this release.
Rouhani’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has described Rezaian as a “good reporter” and a “friend,” and has stated that he hopes his case will be resolved quickly, in Rezaian’s favor. But Zarif also recently justified the charges while also alleging wrongdoing on the part of the United States as a whole. He suggested that some “low-level operative” may have sought to “take advantage” of Rezaian by asking him to gather information for the United States.
Rezaian’s lawyer, who has been permitted only one substantial meeting with her client, said that the case file presented to her by the judiciary shows no evidence for any of the four crimes Rezaian has been charged with.
Those who deny the notions of the Rouhani administration’s moderation also tend to argue that the prosecution of Rezaian and other reporters appears to be part of a broader conservative crackdown, which has also seen more aggressive restrictions on the rights of women, empowerment of civilian militias to enforce religious laws, and expanded censorship.
On Monday another example emerged of this crackdown, which is largely aimed at perceived advocacy of Western culture and supposedly non-Islamic lifestyles. The Daily Caller quotes Iran’s state-run barbers’ union as saying that spiky hairstyles are forbidden in the Islamic Republic.
The announcement expands upon similar statements in 2007 and 2010, which already outlawed spikes as well as a variety of other hairstyles. But in the latest announcement, union head Mostafa Govahi elaborated by asserting that spiked hear represents Satanism. “Any shop that cuts hair in the devil worshipping style will be harshly dealt with,” he said.