Obama Wants Americans Detained In Iran Set Free But It’s Not As Simple As It Seems

For some Americans detained in Iran, it's been years since they've seen U.S. soil. In honor of Friday's Persian New Year, President Obama asked Iran to release detained or missing Americans in an effort to appeal to the Iranian government during the celebrations. In his request, Obama tapped the roots of Nowruz, a holiday when family members reunite after spending long periods of time apart.

Today, as families across the world gather to mark this holiday, we remember those American families who are enduring painful separations from their loved ones who are imprisoned or went missing in Iran.

In the statement, Obama specifically asks the Iranian government to release detained Americans Saeed Abedini, Amir Hekmati, and Jason Rezaian, as well as work cooperatively with the U.S. government to locate missing American Robert Levinson.

Abedini, an Iranian-born pastor whose family lives in Boise, Idaho, was sentenced in 2013 to eight years in prison for organizing Christian churches in private homes in Iran. During a 2011 visit to Iran to tend to an ailing grandmother, Hekmati was arrested on allegations of being a U.S. spy. Washington Post correspondent Rezaian, his wife and fellow journalist Yeganeh Salehi, and two others were detained in Tehran last July for unspecified charges. Though Salehi and the two companions have since been released, Rezaian remains in prison, making him the longest-serving Western journalist in Iranian prison to date, according to USA Today.

Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent, went missing from Kish Island during a business trip in 2007. Earlier this month, the FBI upped the reward for information that leads to Levinson's location and safe return to $5 million. Levinson is one of the longest-held hostage in American history, according to the FBI's website.

Securing the release of detainees or hostages has always been a delicate play. Sometimes they become important playing chips in negotiations between two countries at odds. Human rights advocates were outraged in 2013 when Iranian nuclear negotiations did not appear to mention Abedini's release. Other times, the tradeoff appears too high, such as in the case of Obama's controversial decision to release five leaders of the Taliban in exchange for U.S. army soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

Most likely behind Obama's public statement, however, is an ongoing conversation surrounding the release of the three detained Americans and information on Levinson's whereabouts. In 2009, the federal government denied that former U.S. president Bill Clinton went on behalf of the White House to secure the release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korea, but sources told The Washington Post that Clinton's humanitarian trip resulted only after weeks of backchannel negotiations between senior government officials of both countries.

When it comes to countries with whom the United States has precarious relations — Iran, North Korea, Syria — sometimes the best and only way to get something done is away from the public eye.