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Former US hostage goes on hunger strike to push for release of foreigners held by Iran

Barry Rosen (Etobz/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Former U.S. diplomat Barry Rosen was among the 52 Americans held hostage by a group of hard-line students who stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

On the 41st anniversary of his release and the end of the 444-day hostage crisis, Rosen has gone on hunger strike to push for the release of what he calls other “hostages”: dual nationals and foreign citizens jailed in the Islamic republic.

Rights groups have accused Iran of holding them as bargaining chips for money or influence in Tehran’s dealings with the West.

Rosen, 77, launched his hunger strike on January 19 in the Austrian capital, Vienna, the venue of indirect talks between the United States and Iran aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the deal and reimposed crippling sanctions against Iran. President Joe Biden said he was willing to rejoin the pact if Iran returned to full compliance. But negotiations between Tehran and world powers that started in April in Vienna have been protracted and inconclusive.

Rosen, a senior advisor to United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a U.S.-based lobbying group that opposes the nuclear agreement and has pushed for tougher sanctions against Tehran, says Washington should not strike a deal with Iran if the country holds foreign nationals in prison.

“My message is simple: no deal with Iran unless the hostages are free, and this message is a message [that] I will deliver both to the Iranian and to the American delegations in Vienna,” Rosen said in a January 17 video announcing his decision to stage a hunger strike.

“The hostage crisis hasn’t ended for many others, Americans and Westerners, who are now being held as bargaining chips in Iran,” he added.

Rosen said he was concerned about his health. But he added that refusing to eat was the least he could do to raise awareness about the plight of foreigners imprisoned in Iran.

‘More Than Symbolic’

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on January 18, he said he wanted to “dedicate myself to the safety of hostages and I want them released as soon as possible.”

“I feel it’s more than symbolic,” said Rosen, who did not say when he plans to end his hunger strike.

He said he would like to talk to members of Iran’s delegation in Vienna. But he said it was unclear if they would meet him.

Rosen said that he believes pressure could compel Iran to free the dual nationals and foreigners currently held in the Islamic republic.

“If there’s a deal with Iran, and if Iran does take hostages again, then the deal should be off,” he added.

Rosen said that Tehran’s detention of foreign nationals violated the longstanding tradition of hospitality in Iran, where guests are honored and treated with utmost respect.

“They’re destroying the name of Iran and Iranian civilization and culture,” he said. “Iran has a long and great history and they’ve been destroying it for the last four decades. You don’t take people hostages.”

There are currently more than a dozen dual nationals and foreigners held in Iran. They include at least four Americans who have been imprisoned on espionage and security charges.

Western governments and rights groups have accused Iran of detaining foreign nationals on dubious charges to extract concessions.

The United States has demanded that Iran release the American citizens, saying they were illegally detained.

A ‘Strong Message’

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, the chief U.S. negotiator in Vienna, has made several calls for the release of dual Iranian-American citizens. Iran, however, does not recognize dual nationality.

U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said in February 2021 that the Biden administration had “begun to communicate with the Iranians” on the issue of detained Americans.

Sullivan said Washington’s “strong message to the Iranians will be that…we will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner.”

In 2016, Iran released four Americans as part of a prisoner swap. In return, Washington dropped charges against seven Iranian nationals who had been convicted of sanctions violations. The Americans freed included Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati, pastor Saeed Abedini, and Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari.

The swap was reportedly discussed on the sidelines of the talks over the nuclear deal.

The four Americans still held by Iran include Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, his father Baqer Namazi, and environmentalist and businessman Morad Tahbaz.

In 2019, a prisoner swap involved American graduate student Xiyue Wang, detained in Iran on alleged spying charges, and imprisoned Iranian stem-cell researcher Massud Soleimani, accused by the United States of sanctions violations.