More than two years after Iranian authorities imprisoned Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani on charges of apostasy, the pastor's attorney delivered sobering news on Feb. 21: An Iranian court may have upheld a death sentence against the 34-year-old husband and father of two sons.
As the attorney worked to confirm the reports, it wasn't immediately clear if Nadarkhani could appeal such a verdict. Many feared that Iranian officials would carry out the execution sentence-death by hanging-before the pastor offered a final appeal.
Authorities arrested Nadarkhani in 2009, charging him with apostasy, or renouncing Islam. As pastor of a Christian church with several hundred members in the town of Rasht, Nadarkhani refuted the charges, saying that he had never embraced Islam.
After appealing an initial conviction and death sentence, a lower court found that Nadarkhani had not practiced Islam as an adult, but ruled that he was still guilty of apostasy since he was born into a Muslim home. Nadarkhani's attorney appealed the decision.
Since his conviction, Iranian officials have pressured Nadarkhani to recant Christianity, including an ultimatum in December: They offered the pastor his freedom if he would say that the Muslim prophet Mohammed was a messenger sent by God. Nadarkhani refused.
News of possible execution orders came just days after Rep. Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., sponsored a House resolution calling for the pastor's immediate release. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and leaders from the European Union, France, Great Britain, Mexico, and Germany also have called for his release. Nadarkhani is one of an unknown number of Iranian Christians detained in Iran for their Christian beliefs and practice.
At the same time, international tension with Iran grew worse as Israel blamed Iranian operatives for targeting Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia, and Thailand. A magnetic bomb attached to an Israeli diplomatic car in New Delhi detonated on Feb. 13, wounding the driver and the passenger. A day later, authorities found and defused a similar bomb on a car owned by a driver for the Israeli Embassy in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The same day, police in Thailand arrested three Iranians in Bangkok after they accidentally detonated a bomb in their rented home. The police chief said the men planned to target Israeli staffers in the city. Iranian officials denied the accusations, but they also accused Israel of recent explosions in Iran that killed key Iranian nuclear scientists.
Hostility between Israel and Iran worsened as speculation swirled that Israel might strike Iran's nuclear facilities to hinder the country's development of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said that the United States is urging Israel not to attack Iran. But after meetings with top Israeli officials in Israel, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told reporters that "there is clearly significant tension" between the United States and Israel over how to approach Iran.
Iran responded to the tension by warning of the possibility of its own preemptive strike. "We are no longer willing to wait for enemy action to be launched against us," Mohammed Hejazi, deputy of Iran's armed forces, told Iranian state media on Feb. 21. "Our strategy now is that if we feel our enemies want to endanger Iran's national interests, and want to decide to do that, we will act without waiting for their actions."