The Cable

State Department: Iranian hostages in Syria are not our problem

How do you say "chutzpah" in Farsi?

The Iranian government wants the United States to ensure the safety of its nationals abducted by the Syrian rebels, but the Obama administration said Tuesday it's not responsible for their fate.

The State Department can't confirm the identity of the 48 Iranian hostages being held by Syrian opposition fighters in Damascus, who appeared in a YouTube video released over the weekend by the Free Syrian Army.

Three of the hostages have already been killed by Syrian military shelling, according to the rebels, who claim the group are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They are threatening to kill the rest if the Syrian government's assault on civilians in Damascus and Aleppo continues.

The Iranian government said that the men were pilgrims and that it had sent an official letter to President Barack Obama through the Swiss Embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, calling on the U.S. government to ensure their safety.

"Because of the United States' manifest support of terrorist groups and the dispatch of weapons to Syria, the United States is responsible for the lives of the 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus," Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian quoted the letter as saying.

The Iranian government routinely refers to the Syrian rebels as "terrorists."

At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Acting Deputy Spokesman Patrick Ventrell turned the tables back on the Iranians.

"We cannot confirm the identity of those reported to be kidnapped, and ...  the wider issue of us having deep concerns about Tehran's destructive behavior in Syria continues," he said.

The U.S. government wants everyone in Syria to know American is calling on both sides in the conflict to treat any and all prisoners humanely and in accordance with international law, said Ventrell, but he rejected the idea that the U.S. government is directly responsible for the Iranian hostages' fate.

"Well, that doesn't seem to make sense," he said.  "And to us, it's just unconscionable that the Iranian government is ignoring the massacres of civilians in Aleppo and throughout Syria and instead finding new ways to try and prop up a regime who is killing many of thousands of its own citizens."

The U.S. government didn't even receive any letter, he went on, although the administration was aware that the charge d'affairs of the Swiss mission in Tehran had been called in by the Iranian government.

State's bottom line? Not America's problem.

"These are presumably Iranian citizens inside of Syria," Ventrell said. "We in the U.S. government are calling for them to be treated humanely, and we think that's the appropriate, principled stand to take, but beyond that I don't have anything for you."

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