Afterthought? White House Makes Holiday Appeal for Pastor Jailed in Iran

Patrick Goodenough | November 27, 2013 | 12:49am EST
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Iranian-born American pastor Saeed Abedini has been imprisoned in Tehran since September 2012. (Image: ACLJ)

( – After being criticized for failing to secure the release of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini before reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration on Tuesday made an appeal for his return, and that of two other Americans.

“It’s our view that all of these Americans should have the opportunity to come home,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Los Angeles.

The other two Americans are Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine being detained on what the administration says are as “false espionage charges,” and Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent who went missing in Iran in March 2007 and is the subject of a $1 million FBI reward offered for information leading to his safe recovery and return home.

“The United States government has made a respectful request of the Iranian regime during this holiday season to consider on humanitarian grounds releasing these three Americans – or at least releasing the two Americans we know are detained and locating the whereabouts of the third, Mr. Levinson,” Earnest said.

He recalled that President Obama had raised the cases during a phone conversation with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani in September.

Earlier Tuesday, the White House issued a written statement noting that Levinson, who went missing during a business trip to Iran’s Kish Island, was now “one of the longest held Americans in history.”

“[W]e respectfully ask the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to assist us in securing Mr. Levinson’s health, welfare, and safe return,” it said.

Abedini, a convert from Islam and ordained evangelical pastor, was arrested while on a family visit to Iran last September, convicted on charges of “crimes against national security,” and sentenced last January to eight years’ imprisonment.

His recent move to one of Iran’s most dangerous prisons prompted fresh fears for the U.S. citizen’s safety and renewed calls by supporters for the administration to act urgently to secure his freedom.

As the U.S. and five other powers were holding high-level nuclear talks with Iranian officials in Geneva last week the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which is supporting Abedini’s family in Boise, Idaho and leading the campaign for his release, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to seize an historic opportunity.

“During current negotiations, which will likely result in relaxed sanctions against Iran, the failure to secure the release and return of Mr. Abedini and the other Americans would be reprehensible,” said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow.

“The United States is in a unique position to leverage the freedom of these Americans; to fail to use such leverage sends a message to the Iranian government that these Americans are expendable.”

After the nuclear agreement was struck, the ACLJ accused the administration of betraying Abedini, “who has spent more than a year in an Iranian prison simply because of his Christian faith.”

“By failing to secure his release as a precondition to any negotiations, the Obama administration sends a troubling message to the Iranian government that Americans are expendable,” Sekulow said.

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