Stabenow denounces effort to tie Iran deal to hostages

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Sen. Debbie Stabenow denounced the plan of the Senate’s top Republican to force a re-vote on the Iran nuclear by tying approval to the release of four American hostages — including a Marine from Flint held for more than four years.

In a 15-minute speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Stabenow, D-Lansing, harshly criticized Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who is forcing another vote Thursday on the Iran deal. She said McConnell is “playing politics” by invoking Amir Hekmati, the imprisoned Michigan Marine who has been tortured and could possibly jeopardize ongoing negotiations aimed at freeing him.

A group of 42 Democrats have blocked the Senate from holding a final vote on a disapproval motion of the six-nation deal aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Both Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, backed the deal that opposed by a majority in Congress — including nearly all Republicans.

McConnell’s amendment “would prevent the president from lifting sanctions until Iran meets two simple benchmarks: It must formally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and it must release the American citizens being held in Iranian custody,” he said Tuesday evening. “At the very least we should be able to provide some protection to Israel and long-overdue relief to Americans who’ve languished in Iranian custody for years.”

Stabenow said McConnell’s plan would potentially jeopardize efforts to free Hekmati, who has been in custody for more than four years. Vice President Joe Biden met with Hekmati’s family in a stop in Detroit earlier this year and many GOP candidates have met with Hekmati and posted messages of support including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“The Iranian government is playing politics with Amir Hekmati’s life. Unfortunately, though, now today, the Senate Republican leader is also playing politics with Amir’s life. The imprisonment of this veteran — this American hero — is being used by the Senate majority leader in a transparent effort to score some cheap political points in my judgment — and it is appalling. No American should ever be used in this way,” Stabenow said. “This is not politics. This is somebody’s life.”

A spokesman for McConnell, Don Stewart, responded to Stabenow on Twitter.

“Sen. Stabenow is speaking out now about American prisoners held in Iran. Tomorrow, she’ll have an opportunity to do something about it,” he said.

Stabenow said she has raised Hekmati’s case at the highest levels of the U.S. government — including with President Barack Obama — and said there are intense efforts to try to win his release.

Stabenow said every parent knows the anguish of Hekmati’s family —and noted his father has been battling terminal brain cancer. She called him “an American hero.” Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry told The Detroit News at a roundtable discussion that he was continuing to press the Iranian government to release the four American hostages.

The Senate in May voted 90-0 calling for the release of Hekmati and three other U.S. citizens imprisoned or missing in Iran.

“This resolution is a clear message to the Iranian government: You want to be at the table with the rest of the international community? Free Amir Hekmati now, as well as the other Americans citizens that are being held as hostages,” Stabenow said on the floor of the chamber.

“It is very clear that this brave courageous Marine, who has served our country so well, has the full support of our government to bring him home, immediately.”

Iran has accused Hekmati, 31, of spying for the Central Intelligence Agency. In March, President Barack Obama, in a message marking the Persian New Year, called for the release of imprisoned Americans. He repeated that call in recent weeks.

Hekmati was born in Arizona and raised in Michigan. Iranian authorities arrested him during a 2011 trip to visit his grandmothers, and sentenced him to death for spying. Iran’s Supreme Court annulled the sentence but convicted him of “cooperating with hostile governments” and sentenced him to 10 years.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied Hekmati is a spy, and he denies any wrongdoing.

U.S. Sen. James E. Risch, R-Idaho, who sponsored the earlier resolution, said in May the United States shouldn’t have begun negotiations with Iran “unless these people had been released and accounted for.”

The Hekmati family appeared with U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, along with TV personality Montel Williams in May to raise awareness and lobby for a bipartisan House resolution sponsored by Kildee.

Kildee said Wednesday that McConnell’s amendment “contradicts what for years has been a bipartisan effort” to secure the American prisoners’ release.

“His amendment is sadly counterproductive and does nothing to help bring Amir Hekmati or the other innocent Americans being held home,” Kildee said in a statement. “The fate of Amir and the other imprisoned Americans in Iran should never be a partisan issue.”

The bipartisan Senate resolution was co-sponsored by lawmakers who represent the families of other Americans being held or missing in Iran, including Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho; Jason Rezaian of Marin County, California; and Robert Levinson, who disappeared more than eight years ago from the resort island of Kish.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com