By Sarah Shourd During the year I spent in solitary confinement as a political hostage in Iranian prison, I had a lot of time to sit with the uncertainty of my future, and how it might be tied up with the much larger uncertainty of U.S-Iranian relations.
I was imprisoned in 2009, at a time when the movement for democracy and human rights inside Iran was erupting in protest across the country. The government was scrambling desperately to maintain its legitimacy, and blaming outsiders for “fomenting dissent” was an easy, tried-and-true narrative with ample history to draw from.
At the same time, President Barack Obama had made “talking to our enemies” part of his platform. I was hoping negotiations for my release would be part of these “talks,” and I was hoping they would happen soon. That hope, however intangible, was the only thing holding me together.
I also knew there were decades of animosity between our countries to overcome — in particular protracted disputes over Iran’s nuclear program — and that thought terrified me. After months of interrogation, and being told that my release from prison would have to be “political,” I came to realize my future would be carefully calibrated with the temperature of U.S-Iranian relations.
Five years later, we finally have a deal. A very good deal. A deal that slashes Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent and its operating centrifuges by two-thirds. If implemented, this deal will weaken the hardliner position in Iran, lay the groundwork for greater cooperation between the U.S. and Iran on key issues such as combatting the Islamic State terror group, and — not most importantly, but perhaps most personally for me — will reduces the Iranian government’s incentive use hostage-taking as a tactic in the future.
I don’t have any illusions about the Iranian regime. In fact, I know more about its inhumanity than many of the politicians who go on TV to tell us that confronting Iran militarily is necessary. I trust this deal because it’s a win for everyone and I do believe that by negotiating by fair rules and values, it strengthens the people on both sides that share those values.
I want it to be clear that as a country we have chosen a better approach; a clear divergence from the old narratives distrust and animosity that could escalate to wide-spread violence; a turn towards the right side of history. That is why I was proud to see Democrats block the resolution of disapproval, to ensure it never left the Senate. And that is why I am troubled to see some Republicans pushing legislation that will undermine the nuclear deal — and hope for the hostages.
A bill currently pending in the House of Representatives (the “Justice for Victims of Iranian Terrorism Act,” introduced by Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., earlier this month) would prevent the president from providing sanctions relief until Iran has paid out all outstanding judgments held by U.S. persons against Iran. Such an unrealistic restriction would not lead to release for the hostages or justice for victims of terrorism. In fact, it could do just the opposite.
Sanctions relief in exchange for verifiable nuclear concessions is the heart of this agreement. Threatening the president’s ability to provide sanctions relief threatens the deal itself.
I do not know if the deal will succeed in the long run, but I do know that it creates the best opportunity in decades for greater engagement between the U.S. and Iran on a host of issues. And until U.S.-Iranian relations are normalized, there will continue to be incentive for the Iranian government to hold more Americans hostage.
It is my hope that enough members of the U.S. Congress will realize that by playing politics with the nuclear deal, they are seizing for themselves a spotlight that belongs on the American hostages still held by Iran — Jason Rezaian, Amir Hekmati, Saeed Abedini.
Even more, if they pass bills that undermine the agreement that the U.S. reached not just with Iran, but with other major powers who can influence Teheran for good or ill, they will cast pressure and condemnation on themselves. And make things easier for the Iranian hardliners who push for American hostages to hold in prison and torture — the same hardliners who push for more weapons, more threats against neighbors, more repression at home.
There have been a lot of missed opportunities for sane, effective diplomacy between our two countries, and a lot of resources and time spent to get to this point. Never in history have we been this close to a new beginning for both our countries.
Earlier this summer, when the deal was announced, people across Iran celebrated in the streets. I hope to see Americans celebrating too — if Congress gives diplomacy a chance to succeed.
Sarah Shourd is a journalist, University of California, Berkley visiting scholar and a contributing editor at Solitary Watch. She was living in the Middle East, teaching Iraqi refugees and living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, when she was captured by Iranian forces somewhere along an unmarked border between Iran and Iraq in July 2009 and held incommunicado in solitary confinement for 410 days. Related: See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.