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Politics & Government

State Of The Union Guest Calls On U.S. To Free Americans Jailed In Iran

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There are a handful of Americans that have been held by Iran for years. And that's an issue that some people hope will be discussed by the president in his State of the Union address tonight. The family members of one of the jailed Americans will be in the audience. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Obama is likely to talk about the nuclear deal with Iran as one of his foreign-policy wins. Rami Kurdi will be listening out for something else, though - some mention of his brother-in-law, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati in jail on espionage charges in Iran.

RAMI KURDI: We would love to hear Amir's name. Amir served his country honorably. He's a decorated Marine. We'd love to hear that every effort's being made for Amir and, least of which, that he's mentioned.

KELEMEN: Rami Kurdi and his wife, Sarah Hekmati, are here for the State of the Union speech. They're guests of Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan who spoke to NPR with them in his office today.

DAN KILDEE: The State of the Union address is sort of that one moment when the world is watching Congress and the president, and it seemed to me the most appropriate thing to do was to somehow raise his case. Last year, it was an empty seat. This year, it's Sarah and Rami who will draw attention to his case. I pray to God that next year, Amir will be my guest.

KELEMEN: Amir Hekmati was jailed back in 2011 when he went to visit his grandmother in Iran. He's been held in Iran's notorious Evin prison, and his sister Sarah says he's struggling.

SARAH HEKMATI: Not only is he in a very harsh prison, he's now the longest-held American that's been held there.

KELEMEN: She says the family got some hopeful signs late last year when an Iranian state-run newspaper reported that his case is being reviewed. Meanwhile, his calls home are difficult.

HEKMATI: It's weighing down on him a lot. And you know, I hear it in his voice. I hear it in his just asking when he calls to ask about any updates on our end and then for us to feel like we don't have enough substantial information to give him. It hurts us. It's, like, emotionally torturesome (ph) for him and for us to have to discuss this case.

KELEMEN: The State Department says it often raises Hekmati's case with Iran along with those of two other jailed Americans - Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. The U.S. is also still seeking information about a former FBI agent who went missing in Iran in 2007. The U.S. did not link these cases to the nuclear deal with Iran, and Congressman Kildee agreed with that approach.

KILDEE: I supported the agreement because I thought it made the world a safer place. That doesn't mean that there are not other points of leverage that the United States has with Iran, and it's my view that we should use all those point of leverage to get him home in any way we can.

KELEMEN: This month, Iran could get out from under international sanctions as the nuclear deal with Iran is implemented. Kildee says he's been urging Iranians to show they're serious about, in his words, rejoining the global community by releasing Hekmati and other jailed Americans. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.