Iranian hostage situation reminds America of the politics, humans involved
Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa September 16, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — The United States has agreed to the transfer of $6 billion in frozen assets to Iran and the release five Iranians as part of a prisoner swap the will bring five American captives home.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have criticized the Biden administration initiative, saying it encourages the Iranian regime to jail more Americans.
Groups like the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, which is involved in ongoing work to return captives to American soil, emphasize how each hostage situation is different rather than focusing on the politics.
“We need to do everything we can to get American hostages’ home. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people will overly politicize the issue,” said artist Isaac Campbell, a University of Northern Iowa graduate who played a key role in creating large murals advocating for captives’ return.
“I think the mistake people make when they politicize this issue is that they risk turning these American citizens and these human beings into a policy issue and forgetting that they’re people. At the end of the day, these people are fathers. They’re husbands. They’re uncles. They’re real people.”
But the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts face criticism as the 2024 race for the presidency heats up.
Republican presidential candidate and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum issued a statement Monday criticizing President Joe Biden.
“The United States government should do everything possible to bring American hostages home except pay massive ransoms, which only ensures more hostage taking in the future by countries like Iran, Russia and potentially China,” Burgum said.
The White House pushed back on such criticism.
“This isn’t a payment of any kind. These aren’t U.S. dollars. They aren’t taxpayer dollars. They are Iranian dollars the previous administration allowed them to make,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement to NBC News.
The controversy serves as a reminder of hostages held overseas and the public displays of the emotion they evoke.
In collaboration with Campbell, the Bring Our Families Home Campaign created a pair of wheat paste murals in hopes of raising awareness of the issue. That first one, 150 feet long and 15 feet high, was constructed in Washington, D.C., and unveiled July 20, 2022. Paul Rusesabagina was one of the many life-sized faces depicted.
“Wheat paste is not a permanent material. Time and the elements cause pieces of the murals to fade,” states the campaign website. “This is intentional, to serve as a reminder that over time our loved ones are deteriorating both mentally and physically, underscoring the need for our president to use all tools to bring them home.”
Rusesabagina, a dual Rwandan and Belgian human rights activist, was the focus of the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda.” In 2020, he was kidnapped, taken to Kigali, Rwanda, and arrested on what supporters called trumped-up charges of terrorism. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison but his sentence was commuted this year amid international outcry.
“In my opinion, if they had never created the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda,’ then Americans would have had no idea who this guy Paul Rusesabagina was,” said Brian Warby, a University of Northern Iowa political science professor.
“He wasn’t a political figure. He wasn’t a military general. He wasn’t involved directly with any violence. It’s because the story was told from his perspective. Without that, I don’t think Americans would have ever known who he was or cared that he was later thrown in prison.”
But Rwanda and Iran are very different countries, Warby noted.
“In those cases where the country in question is trying to build a positive relationship and are somewhat dependent on the U.S. for foreign aid or economic assistance of some sort, then I think that opens the door for a public pressure campaign. But that’s definitely not the case with North Korea or Iran,” he said.
Eighteen faces were on the wall. About half have come home.
“You could do something like what Isaac did,” said Warby, “but that specific case is also unique because Rwanda is trying so desperately hard to ingratiate itself with Western countries, and I think Rwanda was uniquely susceptible to a public pressure campaign.”
Another difference is that 20 years ago Americans were often detained by terrorists. The situation was complicated by the United States’ longstanding policy of not negotiating with terrorists, although some presidents have ignored that directive.
Warby estimates more than 95% of American hostages are held in Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea — “countries we might call pariah states.” Most commonly they face allegations of spying.
“The biggest challenge, especially with Russia and China, is we want to maintain some sort of diplomatic relationship, so we don’t want to push too hard and say you guys are a bunch of bullies and bad guys,” said Warby.
Campbell, an Ottumwa native, recently collaborated with the Bring Our Families Home Campaign on a second mural, unveiled July 4 in Houston, depicting many of the hostages.
New outlets suggest as many as 50-60 hostages are being held overseas. Campbell said those who have returned to America have often taken on a role in the fight “after this really horrible experience,” and “actually want to use more of their time to help contribute to solving this problem.”
Campbell said his team is still determining its next step.
“After Houston and the anniversary of the D.C. mural, everybody’s regrouping to figure out what we’re going to do next. It’s an honor to lend my skills and help these families work to bring their loved ones home,” said Campbell.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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