NEW YORK—President Barack Obama, in his phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Friday, asked for the release of Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini, along with Amir Hekmati, another American imprisoned in Iran.
A White House official recounted the call in a briefing Friday evening. The 15-minute conversation was the first time an U.S. president has spoken to an Iranian leader since Jimmy Carter talked to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi just before he exiled from his country 1979.
The focus of the Friday’s discussion was Iran’s nuclear program. Obama’s request for Abedini’s release was significant because the administration has been silent about the imprisoned pastor for months. In March, Secretary of State John Kerry called for his release, but no one has mentioned him since.
Abedini has been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison for almost exactly a year, and has reportedly received beatings and psychological abuse.
Rouhani has said in interviews in the last week that if he was going to release anyone he thought the United States should first release Iranians imprisoned here. Obama’s mention of Abedini and Hekmati alongside the nuclear issue showed the importance he attached to the Americans’ release.
Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of Saeed Abedini, who has criticized the U.S. government’s inaction up to this point, said Obama’s request was the most encouraging news since her husband was imprisoned.
Iran considers Saeed Abedini, who was arrested a year ago while working at an orphanage, a threat to national security because of his Christian activities in the country’s underground church movement. Hekmati, who was in the U.S. Marines and carries U.S. and Iranian passports, was arrested by Iranian authorities while visiting his grandmothers in 2011 and is accused of being a CIA spy.