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Iran nuclear deal: What does it mean for Americans held in Iran?

Story highlights

  • At least three Americans are detained in Iran
  • A fourth vanished on a trip to Iran
  • News of a nuclear deal raises questions about their fate

(CNN)Amir Hekmati always made sure his workout buddies had some fuel in their system before hitting the gym. His close friend Arash Ansari would sometimes skip lunch, but that didn't fly with Hekmati.

"It's very important -- you're a growing boy," Ansari remembers his friend saying.
    Hekmati would grab the blender and make his buddy a shake.
    "It was just one of his weekly 'Amir things' that I almost looked forward to," Ansari said. "I kind of skipped lunch sometimes just to hear him say that to me."
    Hekmati -- a former Marine -- is one of three Americans the U.S. government has acknowledged are being detained in Iran. A fourth, Robert Levinson, was reported missing after a visit to Iran.
    With the announcement of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, their families and friends hope that the fight to free their loved ones won't be ignored. They include Naghmeh Abedini, whose husband, Saeed Abedini, is a Christian pastor imprisoned in Iran.
    "With the announcement of a deal and yet silence as to the fate of Saeed and the other Americans held hostage in Iran, their fate lies now in the hands of Congress," she said in a statement, pleading with Congress to keep the detained Americans in mind as it reviews the deal.
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    "My children have desperately missed the loving embrace of their father for the last three years of their lives. They have grown up almost half of their lives without their father," she said. "Please help us ensure the remainder of their childhood includes both a mother and a father."
    Hekmati's family also released a statement after the nuclear deal was announced.
    "Amir is an innocent man who traveled to Iran to visit family, yet there is no denying that his imprisonment has been prolonged pending an outcome in these negotiations," the statement said. "While Amir himself has said that he should not be part of any nuclear deal, his immediate release would demonstrate a strong gesture of good faith to the international community."
    Ali Rezaian absorbed news of the nuclear agreement Tuesday with thoughts of his brother, Jason, a Washington Post reporter who remains locked up in Iran.
    "Jason is completely innocent of all charges and it is inhumane for him to still be held behind bars after nearly a year," Ali Rezaian said in a statement. "We are hopeful that with the agreement now in place the Iranian courts will conclude this process swiftly and affirm Jason's innocence so we can bring him home and make our family whole again."
    Christine Levinson implored the United States and Iran to keep working together -- "with the same sense of urgency" they applied to reaching a nuclear deal -- to free her husband, Bob, a former FBI agent who vanished in Iran in 2007.
    "Bob has been held against his will for eight years," she said. "This nightmare must end."
    Their son, David, said the family desperately wants his father home.
    "What we believe is that this deal is not the end of discussions between the Iranian government and the United States government, but merely the beginning," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Tuesday.

    A month of mercy

    Amir Hekmati has been detained since 2011 on charges that he was spying for the United States -- charges he flatly denies.
    He has lost nearly 30 pounds and has trouble breathing, according to his brother-in-law. He might have a lung infection, and his family worries that if Hekmati is not treated, he could contract tuberculosis.
    "I can't understand how four years have gone by and we are just now getting the most basic attention on his case," Ansari said. "I don't know -- I can't understand -- how Amir has not been a priority. He should've been released, you know, six months into his detainment, at most. And now we're approaching four years."
    Hekmati's family hopes that having Iranian and American diplomats already in rooms together, in timing underscored by the magnanimous spirit that embodies the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, will be enough to secure Amir's release.
    Hekmati's sister, Sarah, and her husband, Ramy Kurdi, traveled to Vienna, where the nuclear negotiations were being held, to make sure Amir Hekmati's case wasn't forgotten.
    "This month is Ramadan, as Ramy mentioned. A month that the supreme leader could show Amir mercy," she said. "I have come all this way because our family needs answers."
    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged this month that U.S. diplomats have brought up the cases of Americans being detained in Iran on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations.
    "This is something that we continue push hard on irrespective of the nuclear deal," President Barack Obama said last month at a news conference. "We spend a lot of time pushing on it and we will continue to do so."
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    U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in June that Washington has insisted that Iran release Hekmati, Rezaian and Abedini. His boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, echoed that sentiment Tuesday morning when the deal was announced.
    "We continue to call on Iran to immediately released the detained U.S. citizens," Kerry said. "These Americans have remained in our thoughts throughout this negotiation, and we will continue to work for their safe and swift return."
    The Obama administration contends that the negotiations on behalf of Americans being held in Iran and the status of that country's nuclear program are separate issues.
    The issue was not technically on the negotiating table, but the agreement on the nuclear deal could help improve the climate of any potential future negotiations, says Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
    "Clearly in a frozen relationship, either they're kept as pawns or largely they become essentially a facet of the confrontation," Nasr says. "If the relationship is not confrontational, or it's more stable, then it is more likely that that issue can be resolved."
    Some say the detained Americans and nuclear negotiations are inextricably linked.
    "The scale of Iran's current hostage-taking -- not only (Jason) Rezaian but also Iranian-Americans Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati -- may pale in comparison with Iranian behavior of decades past," author Michael Rubin wrote in an opinion piece for CNN in March. "But the use of hostages to extract concessions or dampen the enthusiasm surrounding reconciliation is part of a consistent pattern."
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    Hekmati's friends and family worry that if he's not freed soon, he may miss his last chance to see his dying father. Ali Hekmati is suffering from brain cancer and has had two strokes since his diagnosis, according to Kurdi, Amir Hekmati's brother-in-law. Ansari says Ali Hekmati gets worse every day.
    "I want my dad to hold his son again. I want my mom's heart to stop breaking," Sarah Hekmati said, fighting back tears. "I want the hole that we all feel by his absence to be filled."
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    The families of the others held or missing share the same sentiments.
    Here's a more detailed look at the cases of Levinson, Abedini, Rezaian and Hekmati:

    Robert Levinson

    Levinson, a former FBI agent and contractor for the CIA, vanished after visiting Iran in 2007. Iranian officials have denied any knowledge of his whereabouts.
    In March 2007, Levinson traveled to Kish Island in Iran and checked into a hotel, according to State Department officials. Levinson was reportedly in the Mideast to investigate cigarette smuggling on behalf of a client. During the visit, he met with American fugitive Dawud Salahuddin, who is the last person to acknowledge seeing him, the officials said.
    Levinson had been hired as a contractor by Tim Sampson, head of the Illicit Finance Group within the Office of Transnational Issues at the CIA, one year earlier to write reports for the agency. Three CIA employees, including Sampson, later lost their jobs for overstepping their authority as analysts and withholding information about Levinson after he disappeared.
    Levinson's wife, Christine, met with government officials in Iran in late 2007 but did not learn anything about her husband's disappearance.
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    The CIA paid the Levinson family more than $2 million in 2008 to head off a lawsuit, according to family attorney David McGee.
    In the years since Levinson went missing, his family has released video and photos that they say prove he is alive.
    In a December 2011 video, Levinson said, "I have been treated well, but I need the help of the United States government to answer the requests of the group that has held me for three-and-a-half years. And please help me get home. Thirty-three years of service to the United States deserves something. Please help me."
    A series of photographs the family said they received in April 2011 showed a bearded, shackled Levinson, wearing an orange jumpsuit and holding signs written in broken English.
    Hillary Clinton, while serving as U.S. secretary of state, said in 2011 that the State Department had received "indications" that Levinson was being held in South Asia.
    During his career at the FBI, Levinson specialized in investigating organized crime in Russia.
    The FBI has increased the reward for information on Levinson to $5 million.
    Levinson's son Daniel testified last month at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
    "We believe that if the Iranian government had the will and motivation to locate my father and send him home, they most certainly could," he said. "My family will never rest until our father is back home with us."
    Noting that his father was still a U.S. government contractor at the time of his disappearance, Daniel Levinson said: "The U.S. has a moral obligation to help bring him home."
    Levinson has seven children. He suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, among other illnesses, according to his family.

    Saeed Abedini

    Abedini, an American Christian pastor who was born in Iran and lived in Idaho, was detained in Iran on September 26, 2012, according to the American Center for Law and Justice.
    Abedini's charges stemmed from his conversion from Islam to Christianity more than a decade ago and his activities with home churches in Iran, according to the Washington-based group dedicated to protecting religious and constitutional freedoms.
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    In 2013, Abedini was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of attempting to undermine the Iranian government.
    His wife, Nagameh Abedini, last month joined the families of other Americans imprisoned or missing in Iran in Capitol Hill to plead for the safe return of their loved ones.
    U.S. officials have said they raised the cases with their Iranian counterparts frequently on the sidelines of the talks for a historic nuclear agreement. But Nagameh Abedini told lawmakers at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing that wasn't enough.
    "I appreciate that they're being discussed on the sidelines, but they're still not home," she said. "Where's the action? Where's the result?"
    President Obama met with Naghmeh Abedini and the couple's two young children -- Rebekka and Jacob -- in Boise, Idaho, in January. The President reassured her the case was a high priority.
    The law and justice center reported last month that Abedini was beaten by fellow prisoners in an unprovoked attacked as he was leaving his cell. He suffered injuries to his face. The center said he has endured torture and numerous beatings, sometimes at the hand of prison guards. At one point, reports circulated about death threats targeting Abedini from ISIS prisoners held at the same Iranian facility.
    In 2009, Abedini was arrested in Iran and later released after formally pledging to stop organizing churches in homes. He returned to Iran three years later to help build a state-run secular orphanage. It was during that visit that he was abruptly pulled from a bus and imprisoned.

    Jason Rezaian

    Rezaian, The Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran; his wife Yeganeh Salehi and two freelance journalists were detained on July 22, 2014, according to the newspaper. An Iranian official confirmed to CNN at the time that the group was being held but did not say what they were charged with.
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    The two freelance journalists taken into custody with Rezaian were released over the next two months, a source close to the family of the detainees told CNN. And in October 2014, the Post reported, Rezaian's wife was released on bail.
    Rezaian was eventually charged with espionage and other serious crimes including "collaborating with a hostile government" and "propaganda against the establishment," according to the Post.
    The newspaper has rejected the allegations.
    "Any charges of that sort would be absurd, the product of fertile and twisted imaginations," the Post said in a recent statement.
    The U.S. State Department also has called the charges "absurd."
    Rezaian was denied bail. And for months, he has been denied access to proper legal representation, according to his family.
    His brother said Monday that Rezaian's trial resumed for the third time without warning since his initial detainment.
    Boxing great Muhammad Ali, an American Muslim, appealed to Tehran in April to give Rezaian full access to legal representation and free him on bail.
    "To my knowledge, Jason is a man of peace and great faith, a man whose dedication and respect for the Iranian people is evident in his work," Ali said in a religiously worded statement.
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    The journalist has not been allowed to see visitors aside from his wife and has endured long interrogations, family members have said.
    Iran's human rights chief, Mohammad Javad Larijani, told news outlet France 24 last year that he hoped Rezaian's case would come to a positive conclusion. He said, "Let us hope that this fiasco will end on good terms."
    Rezaian had been accredited by the government to work as a journalist for the Post since 2012, according to the newspaper.

    Amir Hekmati

    Hekmati joined the Marines out of high school in 2001 and returned to the United States four years later a more reserved and somber man, according to Ansari.
    "It was difficult -- he was quiet a lot of times," Ansari said. "That humor and laughter that I was used to seeing in Amir was almost missing."
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    Within a year and a half, though, Amir was back to himself -- "maybe even better," Ansari says.
    In 2011 he left for Iran to go visit his family's ancestral home and spend some time with his ailing grandmother.
    Amir Hekmati was born in Arizona and raised in Flint, Michigan, after his parents emigrated from Iran.
    "We know there is a risk involved," his mother, Behnaz Hekmati, told CNN in 2013.
    Days before he was arrested, Hekmati called his mother and said that he would be coming home; he planned to leave two days after a good-bye gathering his relatives were planning.
    He never showed up at the party.
    Hekmati was detained in August 2011. Ansari found out shortly afterward that his friend was missing.
    "That was just after Labor Day," he said. "Labor Day has a different meaning now."
    Ansari said he and Hekmati's family were advised to keep the matter quiet -- it was made very clear to his family that discussing Amir's case publicly would bring "some kind of harm to Amir."
    The Hekmati family asserts that they remained quiet about the arrest at the request of Iranian officials who promised his release.
    "Though it felt like the wrong thing to do, we kept silent," Ansari said.
    In December, Hekmati appeared on state television and said he was working for the CIA.
    He was tried, convicted of "working for an enemy country" and sentenced to death in January 2012, according to an Iranian news agency. A higher Iranian court overturned that sentence and ordered a retrial a few months later.
    Behnaz Hekmati has said all along that her son's confession was fabricated and forced by his Iranian captors, a position that's supported by the State Department. The State Department has said Amir Hekmati's imprisonment follows a pattern by the Iranian regime, which it says "has a history of falsely accusing people of being spies, of eliciting forced confessions, and of holding innocent foreigners for political reason."
    The letter Amir Hekmati wrote to Secretary Kerry.
    "They had three months to make this story," his mother said.
    He was eventually able to get a handwritten letter out of prison in which he proclaimed his innocence.
    In the correspondence -- dated September 1, 2013, and addressed to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry -- Hekmati says that he has "been held on false charges based solely on confessions obtained by force, threats, miserable prison conditions, and prolonged periods of solitary confinement."
    Hekmati's sister told CNN in 2014 that her brother was convicted of "practical collaboration with the U.S. government" and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Hekmati's Iranian attorney told The New York Times that the trial was conducted by a secret court and Hekmati was never told about the retrial, conviction or sentence.