WASHINGTON — It was literally a question of life and death, and the answer by Secretary of State John Kerry puzzled the congressman.
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., wanted to know why the Obama administration did not even ask for the release of pastor Saeed Abedini, the American imprisoned in Iran, while negotiating a nuclear deal.
“They (prisoners) would become pawns to the process and it could prolong it, it could make it more risky or dangerous,” said Kerry.
Smith had already noted, “But he is at risk right now of death. He’s been transferred to an even more ominous prison. He’s in a cell with known murderers. He woke up with a knife next to his face.”
The 33-year-old pastor was sentenced in January to eight years in prison for spreading Christianity in Iran. He was convicted of attempting to undermine the government and endangering national security by persuading youth to leave Islam.
‘Nothing could be done’
Smith said Kerry’s State Department had told Abedini’s wife, Naghmeh, “there was nothing that could be done,” leaving her “shocked and dismayed.”
Naghmeh said her husband had been beaten until the pain became so great he couldn’t even stand.
Smith said Naghmeh Abedini will testify before his subcommittee Thursday that she “was devastated to learn that the administration didn’t even ask for my husband’s release when directly seated across the table from the leaders of the government that hold him captive.”
Smith asked Kerry, “So my first question would be, is that true? Did we raise Abedini’s case directly with the Iranians in the negotiations on the nuclear issue?”
Befitting a diplomat, Kerry answered both yes and no.
“The answer is that is not true. I personally raised the issue with Foreign Minister Zarif when I first met him, the very first time,” he began.
But then the secretary seemed to contradict himself by confirming that the release of the pastor was not one of the Americans’ conditions for a deal.
“[W]e have not linked it directly to the nuclear issue, because we believe that prejudices them, and it also prejudices the negotiation. We don’t want them to become the hostages or pawns of a process that then gets played against something they want with respect to the nuclear program; nor do you, I think.”
The national security card
When Smith pressed him to try and explain just what that meant, Kerry played the national security card, claiming, “I am not at liberty to go into what is happening on it, and that is the difficulty in some of these situations many times, because there are back channels and other kinds of efforts that are engaged in.”
The congressman didn’t give up, saying ” I do appreciate that. But it seems to me that there was a window of opportunity when they wanted something and wanted it desperately, to raise the issue at that negotiating table.”
Kerry responded, “We’re not going to (link) them to the nuclear because it prejudices them.”
Apparently trying to understand how there possibly could be more prejudice against someone than an American pastor in an Iranian jail for practicing Christianity, that’s when the congressman pointed out the situation could hardly get worse for someone facing daily death threats.
Kerry refused to address the situation for the record, telling Smith, “I’m happy to speak with you in a classified venue, providing it is cleared appropriately, and I can tell you what we’re doing. But it is an ongoing and constant effort.”
The diplomacy of ‘hope’
The lawmaker tried another tack, asking if the State Department expected Abedini would be freed.
“I have a hope,” said Kerry.
Smith was troubled, saying that raised “even more serious questions” about U.S. credibility “when an American is being tortured and we’re conducting a negotiation” and he’s not even a part of the deal.
Kerry chalked that up to politics, saying, ” Obviously we have to make some very tough decisions about what affects what.”
Apparently, one of those decisions was not to press for the release of an American Christian pastor tortured in an Iranian jail during negotiations with one of the most tyrannical and dangerous regimes in the world, even though its leaders were desperate to gain Western approval for their drive to become a nuclear power.
WND contributing reporter Michael Carl has chronicled the saga of Abedini, and how he began serving his term in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where he endured numerous brutal beatings.
Abedini recently was transferred to the even-worse Rajai Shahr prison for hard-core criminals, where he is said to be facing life-threatening conditions.
The American Center for Law and Justice told Carl, “Pastor Saeed is facing constant threats to his very life in the new prison. There have been several nights where he has awoken to men standing over him with knives.”
His “cell” is separated only by a curtain from the rest of the violent prisoner ward he is forced to share, ACLJ said, allowing dangerous prisoners, including murderers and rapists, unfettered access to him 24 hours a day.
“He has also been robbed at knife-point several times, stripping him of what few necessities he has been permitted to purchase for personal hygiene,” the group added.
Trump scorches Obama’s negotiating skills
On Monday, WND published Carl’s interview with an outraged Donald Trump, who insisted the U.S. could have won freedom for Iranian-born Abedini, if only President Obama’s team had requested it in nuclear negotiations with Tehran.
“It’s an outrageous situation, and I think President Obama, just for the asking, could have gotten the Christian pastor released from this horrific prison he’s enduring right now,” Trump told WND.
“I’m hearing it’s a tortuous prison and not a good situation, and it’s not good at all. It’s very unfair,” he told Carl.
“How does Obama rationalize giving Iran $8B in sanction relief when a Christian pastor is being tortured in an Iranian prison?” he had tweeted.
“I am very happy to hear that he is doing this, because this is the first example of anyone outside of the legal and political areas speaking out,” she said. “I hope that more people like him will speak out.”
The billionaire real-estate entrepreneur and reality TV star said the Obama administration failed in its negotiating strategy.
“You don’t get anything unless you ask,” he said. “And I don’t think they even asked. Secretary of State Kerry, had he asked, as a sign of good faith, to release the pastor, they would have done it.”
Trump noted the strong criticism in the U.S. of the six-month, preliminary nuclear deal with Iran and suggested an agreement to release Abedini would have softened the opposition.
He called the entire arrangement with Iran “terrible,” arguing that eliminating sanctions before signing a permanent agreement removes incentive to comply.
“Who ever heard of a thing like this? Either make a deal or don’t make a deal,” he said.
“Once you take off the sanctions, you’re right now, every day, emboldening them and making it harder to negotiate,” said Trump. “They could have made the deal and not made it subject to six months. It’s ridiculous.”
Making freedom a priority
ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow told WND, “Many members of Congress have expressed their support for Pastor Saeed and called on Iran to release him. Many members of Congress also understand that this situation is dire and that the life of a U.S. citizen is at risk.”
A House Foreign Affairs subcommittee will hold a hearing Dec. 12 on the status, which Carl will cover for WND.
“The State Department and the Obama administration must make Pastor Saeed’s freedom a true priority,” Sekulow said. “That message will be communicated clearly at the upcoming hearing.”
As Carl reported for WND last week, Tiffany Barrans, international legal director for the ACLJ, said it is “increasingly difficult to hear about the deplorable conditions in which the Iranian regime continues to hold pastor Saeed.”
“The human body can only endure so much,” she said.
Barrans said sanitation is limited, leaving Abedini prone to further infections. She added that threats of violence are a daily occurrence.
“He lives in filth where he has been denied proper medical attention and nutrition. Pastor Saeed has also suffered psychologically.”
She said that because of neglect, the medical problems “that concerned us so much during his detainment in Evin Prison have returned.”
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth