NEW YORK—Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived at the United Nations Monday projecting the face of a reforming Iran after his government released 80 opposition prisoners. The newly elected president said he would “take the opportunity to present the true face of Iran as a cultured and peace-loving country,” and he may even meet with President Barack Obama.
When Rouhani arrived at his New York hotel across the street from the UN, where the General Assembly begins this week, he crossed paths with the wife of a prisoner his country has not released: American-Iranian Pastor Saeed Abedini.
Abedini has now been held in Evin Prison for almost a year, arrested as a threat to national security while he worked at an orphanage in Iran. His lawyers in the United States say he was jailed for his faith, and that he has been tortured and beaten in the year since. The government sentenced Abedini to eight years in prison and has refused to allow him to speak to his wife, Naghmeh, and their two young children, ages 7 and 5. Naghmeh said the Iranians executed two prisoners in front of her husband in an effort to intimidate him.
Naghmeh Abedini happened to be staying in the same hotel as Rouhani, though she and her lawyer from the American Center for Law and Justice, Tiffany Barrans, had not intentionally booked a room there. They said this was the only hotel their travel agent could find near the UN. Later, while reading news reports, they realized they would be in the same hotel and prayed they might cross paths with Rouhani.
I met Abedini and Barrans in the hotel lobby for an interview, and they noticed Iranian security detail milling about. Partway into our conversation, Barrans noticed American and Iranian security becoming more active.
“Something’s happening,” Barrans said. A few moments passed. “That’s him, that’s him,” she said, as Rouhani walked by, less than 10 feet from Abedini.
“President Rouhani?” Abedini asked her attorney in disbelief.
“Yes,” said Barrans. Rouhani was less recognizable because he wore a suit, not his traditional dress. Abedini grabbed a letter her husband had written the president and walked over to the bank of elevators, where Rouhani was surrounded by Iranian and American security. He stepped onto an elevator, but some of his Iranian aides stayed behind.
Abedini approached one of the Iranian aides and said in Farsi, “I’m the wife of Saeed Abedini, who you have in Evin Prison.” She said the aide looked shocked and recognized the name. She asked him to give the president the letter, and the aide said he would.
The chances of this kind of meeting are very slim because security is so tight around the General Assembly. Barricades and security checks surrounded the hotel, along with dozens of FBI agents and New York Police Department officers. Also, Barran only had an non-governmental organization pass to the UN, so the two wouldn't have access to the actual General Assembly. The meeting in the hotel lobby was the only way they could have come so close to Rouhani.
“I didn’t know if they were going to stop me,” Naghmeh Abedini said of the Iranian security after she returned to our seats. “That was so intense.”
She said of Rouhani, “OK, you’re a moderate—let’s see it.”