WASHINGTON—Republican lawmakers blasted the Obama administration on Thursday for negotiating with Iran without demanding the release of three U.S. prisoners being held in the country.
The comments came at a joint subcommittee hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of imprisoned American citizen and pastor Saeed Abedini, headlined the panel of witnesses, telling members, “I felt abandoned,” when learning that U.S. negotiators didn’t ask for her husband’s release before or during the recent talks.
“I had anticipated that I would battle the Iranian government to release my husband. I didn’t expect to battle with my own government,” said Naghmeh, who has spent the past 15 months crisscrossing the country to build support for her husband.
Naghmeh read from a letter her husband sent her from Iran in which he said it is “heartbreaking” to see pictures of his family knowing they are living life without him.
“I came here to help the kids that did not have mommies and daddies, but my own kids lost their daddy,” Saeed wrote. “I want you to know that I did not want to put so much pressure on your little shoulders, my precious children.”
Thursday’s hearing came two days after Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., grilled Secretary of State John Kerry on why the United States engaged in extensive talks with Iran without raising Saeed’s plight. Smith told me afterward he was assuming Kerry would say they had tried and was shocked to learn they never asked.
Kerry said the United States is doing everything it can to secure Saeed’s release and didn’t want the pastor to become a pawn in nuclear negotiations. Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, said Kerry’s response outraged him. “They should be the ones afraid of what we will do to them, not the other way around,” Weber shouted.
Naghmeh said Kerry’s testimony didn’t surprise her, but it was disappointing to hear him say her husband’s life wasn't as important as Iran’s nuclear program.
“I never wanted them to negotiate Saeed during the nuclear talks,” she said. “We always wanted it to be a precondition.”
Kerry said Saeed’s case was not linked “directly to the nuclear issue,” but other members of the State Department seemed to contradict his testimony, telling the Abedinis’ legal team he was brought up “on the margins.”
The Abedinis’ attorney, Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), told lawmakers he’s not sure whom to believe. He urged them to accept Kerry’s offer to brief them on what the State Department is doing to secure Saeed’s release.
Smith said either answer is unacceptable: “Every conversation should have started with Mr. Abedini, and every conversation should have ended with Mr. Abedini.”
Katrina Lantos Swett, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), told lawmakers the United States should be wary of any agreement with a country that refuses to do something so simple.
“If they are unwilling to do something so easy—so easy—then I think we have to be concerned about their willingness to do something very hard, which is to undo a very sophisticated nuclear program,” she said.
Saeed was arrested in 2012 during a trip to open an orphanage that the Iranian government had previously authorized. In January, a notoriously unjust judge sentenced Saeed—without his legal council present—to eight years in prison for threatening Iran’s national security by building an orphanage and working with Iran’s house church movement between 2000 and 2005.
Naghmeh hasn’t seen her husband in 444 days, but family members who have seen him said his health is deteriorating after enduring beatings and being refused medical treatment.
Many members of Congress have spoken publicly on the pastor’s behalf, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky. Last month, the Senate passed a resolution calling for Saeed’s release, and a similar House measure has drawn bipartisan support.
On Thursday, Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., told Naghmeh that she and her family pray daily for Saeed’s plight. Walorski said she is “deeply embarrassed” by the State Department’s apparent lack of effort to release American prisoners unjustly detained.
“Congress should not have to urge the administration to act in a case like this,” Walorski said.
Sekulow pointed out that “while our government sat across the table from the Iranians,” Saeed was transferred from Evin Prison to Rajai Shahr Prison, an even more brutal prison for violent criminals. He said if the United States does not act, Saeed may not live through his eight-year sentence.
Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., pushed back against Sekulow’s assertion that the State Department has been “incompetent” and said criticizing the administration isn’t helpful. Smith, a 32-year veteran of the House, said he doesn’t care who is in the White House, “religious freedom is always given a back seat.”
Lantos Swett—whose late father, Rep. Tom Lantos, was the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress—said the U.S. government should heed Iran’s actions, not its words. “A lot has been said about [Iran President Hassan] Rouhani’s charm-offensive, but when you actually look at what is going on in Iran since he took office, it's actually more alarming than charming,” she said.
Lawmakers also discussed other American prisoners in Iran, including FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, and Amir Hekmati, arrested in 2011 for allegedly spying on Iran for the CIA. Multiple members noted that last month Levinson spent his 2,455th day in prison, making him the longest-held hostage in U.S. history.
Naghmeh told me she believes the U.S. government missed a golden opportunity with the nuclear talks.
“It would have been an easy ask and an easy give to release the Americans, including my husband,” she said. “Now it's going to be much harder.”