The wife of a U.S. pastor imprisoned in Iran said Tuesday that American officials must do more to secure his release during the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Tehran, adding that his physical and psychological health has deteriorated after nearly three years in detention.
In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Naghmeh Abedini said her husband Saeed continues to struggle with several health issues in prison, including an ulcer, internal bleeding, infections, and poor nutrition. Members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized Saeed in September 2012, and he was later sentenced to eight years in prison for helping to start Christian house-churches years earlier in the country.
Saeed’s father, who visits him in prison each week, is also concerned about his emotional health, Naghmeh said. He has been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement, most recently in April, and told that he will not be released unless he renounces Christianity and returns to his former faith of Islam.
"His father has noticed over the last five, six months that he seems more broken and more emotional over the separation from the family," Naghmeh said.
Naghmeh spoke Tuesday at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing along with the relatives of three other Americans either imprisoned or missing in Iran. While the State Department regularly contacts her about U.S. efforts to seek Saeed’s release on the sidelines of the nuclear talks, she said the Iranians have mostly rebuffed those requests.
She told the Free Beacon that it appears to have become more difficult to obtain the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran since the two nations agreed to discuss the latter’s nuclear program in 2013. Two American hikers were freed from the country in 2011 after they were convicted of spying and illegally walking into Iran.
She urged U.S. negotiators to help Saeed return home before the deadline for the nuclear talks on June 30, which also happens to be their wedding anniversary. U.S. officials have only discussed nonnuclear issues on the margins of the talks, a situation that has put human rights "on the backburner," she said.
"I don’t know when else we will have more leverage to do this," she said. "I would ask that we do not walk away from the table until we secure the release of Saeed and the other Americans."
Saeed’s imprisonment has also been difficult for his two young children: Rebekka, 8, and Jacob, 7. When Naghmeh travels to advocate for her husband’s release, her children worry she will not come back and they will lose both of their parents, she said.
"Their whole world has changed over the last three years," she said. "They had to be without a mom and dad. Our family has been torn apart over this."
She added that she hopes her children can cling to memories of their father.
"The biggest worry is that they will forget who their Daddy is," she said. "My daughter said, ‘I’m forgetting Daddy’s voice.’"
Lawmakers at the Tuesday hearing expressed frustration about the inability of U.S. officials to secure the release of Saeed and the other imprisoned Americans. Members of the committee passed a resolution pressing Iran to free the prisoners, and several said they would not approve a final nuclear deal with Tehran unless it did so.
Lawmakers will have 30 days to review any final agreement with Iran and pass a resolution of approval or disapproval, though President Obama could veto that resolution and proceed to implement a deal if he is not overridden by Congress.
"The least we can do is say any deal with Iran is dead on arrival without the release of these prisoners," Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.) said at the hearing.
Advocates for the prisoners say the Obama administration has failed to make human rights issues a priority in its discussions with Iran. Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the law firm that represents the Abedini family, noted in an interview that the State Department is nearly 100 days past the legal deadline for releasing its annual country reports on human rights.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment about the delay of the report’s release and its relation to the nuclear talks with Iran. Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the department, said at a press briefing Tuesday that scheduling issues have so far prevented the report’s release. It will be made public "as soon as we can," she said.
Barrans said U.S. officials made a concession to Iran by agreeing not to discuss human rights or other issues at the nuclear talks. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, tweeted that engaging solely on the nuclear issue was one of his "red lines" for the negotiations.
"The U.S. has bowed to that red line by the Iranian government," she said.
Naghmeh said she wants the Obama administration, lawmakers, and Americans to remember that Saeed is fighting for the right to be a Christian. He has endured several beatings in prison but refused to renege on his faith.
"Religious freedom is such an important issue for our country," she said. "Standing up for what he believes in, we can’t abandon him as a country. We have to stand up with him."