The wife of American pastor Saeed Abedini, a religious prisoner in Iran, said the U.S. government has abandoned her husband during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
Naghmeh Abedini told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that she was dismayed after learning that her husband’s imprisonment was not raised during the recent nuclear negotiations between Iran, the United States, and other world powers.
Saeed Abedini was detained last year for starting Christian house churches in Iran and was later sentenced to eight years in prison for "undermining the national security of Iran."
Naghmeh Abedini said in an interview after the hearing that the State Department decided not to include her husband’s release as a precondition for the talks, but informed her after an interim agreement was reached that it was discussed "on the margins."
"It’s been discussed, but where’s the action?" she asked. "We had the most leverage to not only discuss and get silence from the Iranian government, but we had the leverage to free him as a precondition, and we didn’t."
"It does show that this is not a priority," she said. "His freedom and this religious freedom issue is not a top priority for the [Obama] administration."
Secretary of State John Kerry said at a House hearing Tuesday that negotiators did not directly link Abedini’s case to the nuclear talks because it "prejudices them." He also said that they did not want him and other U.S. prisoners in Iran to become "the hostages or pawns of a process that then gets played against something [Iran] wants with respect to the nuclear program."
Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) and an attorney for the Abedini family, said that the continued detentions of Abedini, former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, and retired FBI Agent Robert Levinson have already confirmed Kerry’s fear.
"They already are pawns and they already are hostages of Iran," he said. "They are American citizens being held by a foreign government. We are sitting at the table with them."
Kerry said negotiators are working behind the scenes in "back channels" to secure the prisoners’ release, but questions continue to be raised about the administration's commitment.
The ACLJ has noted that the White House fact sheet on the nuclear deal guaranteed that "humanitarian transactions" of food and medicine for the Iranian people would continue to be exempt from sanctions, suggesting that the purview of the talks went beyond Iran’s nuclear program.
However, a State Department official told the Free Beacon on background that Iran’s nuclear program was the only item on the agenda for the Geneva negotiations.
"With regard to the Geneva agreement, the only subject on the agenda was the nuclear file," the official said. "There are unfortunately many things that Iran does around the world that we don't like, including its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the Middle East. None of this was on the agenda for the nuclear negotiations."
"We have been repeatedly clear that we are calling on Iran to release all detained U.S. citizens in Iran. We will continue our efforts until all return home."
The Times of Israel reported last month that the United States released top Iranian scientist Mojtaba Atarodi in April as part of clandestine talks ahead of the nuclear negotiations. Atarodi was arrested in California in 2011 for reportedly attempting to acquire "dual-use technologies" that could bolster Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
An Israeli intelligence analyst told the Times that U.S. and Iranian officials have met on and off in Oman for years to exchange prisoners, but Atarodi’s release has so far not been reciprocated by Iran.
The State Department official denied that Atarodi’s release was related to the nuclear talks.
"The Mojtaba Atarodi case is not related to the recent first step agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 on its nuclear program," the official said. "Reports that the two issues are connected are not true."
"At his open hearing on April 27 in federal court in San Francisco, Atarodi pled guilty to multiple counts related to conspiracy to export controlled products to Iran without a license. He was sentenced to time served by the judge and left the United States soon after."
Naghmeh Abedini and Sekulow said they will continue to press for Saeed Abedini’s release as they await more news of backdoor talks. An online petition for Abedini has garnered more than 150,000 signatures and both the House and Senate have passed resolutions calling for the immediate release of all U.S. prisoners in Iran.
Abedini, a convert to Christianity who lived with Naghmeh and his two children in Idaho, agreed to cease all house church activities after he was arrested in an Iranian airport in 2009. The Iranian government gave him approval to build an orphanage and he proceeded to visit Iran eight times to establish it.
Yet on the ninth visit Abedini was seized by Iranian authorities, held in solitary confinement for four weeks, beaten, and threatened with death because of his faith before a two-day trial was held.
Abedini was granted limited access to his attorney before the trial, which lacked "any semblance of due process," Sekulow said in his testimony.
The judge who sentenced Abedini to eight years in jail, Judge Abbas Pir-Abassi, is known as the "hanging judge" in Iran because of his reputation for sending peaceful protesters and human rights activists to the gallows.
Abedini was transferred to the notorious Rajai Shahr prison last month, just days before thousands of protesters commemorated the 1979 Islamic Revolution and takeover of the U.S. embassy by chanting "death to America" at government-sponsored rallies. He has been robbed at knifepoint and had his life threatened by murderers and rapists at the facility while he suffers from internal bleeding and urinary tract infections after being denied medication.
Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations, asked why the Obama administration and current State Department could not employ the same strategy of previous administrations to engage adversaries on human rights issues.
"When [former Secretary of State] George Schultz would visit Moscow, he would always meet with all the dissidents and then meet with the Soviets as well," he said. "It was never this stove piping, doing this in another room."
"[Human rights] need to be integrated, it needs to be part of the discussion, and then [Abedini] will be released," Smith said later.
Daniel Calingaert, executive vice president of the pro-democracy group Freedom House, said in his testimony that Iran’s new president Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate, has so far failed to deliver on his promises of more speech and press freedoms. More than 800 political dissidents remain behind bars, dozens of online writers have been arrested in recent weeks, and more than 600 executions have taken place this year.
"With all that is at stake in the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, there is a temptation to put aside human rights issues, lest they complicate the nuclear negotiations and derail an agreement," he said. "That would be a mistake. Speaking out for human rights in Iran, as elsewhere, both reflects U.S. values and serves U.S. interests, and it can be done at the same time as the nuclear negotiations take place."
For Naghmeh Abedini, the most important thing is fighting to ensure that her children do not have to spend a second Christmas without their father.
"My daughter asked, she said, ‘For my Christmas present I want daddy home,’" she told the Free Beacon. "So the only way to survive this is my faith as a Christian, and I still hope for Christmas. I will do everything that I can to make that happen."