Christian pastor among 5 Americans released by Iran

Naghmeh Abedini in front of the White House in September 2014. He husband, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, was among five Americans freed from prison in Iran on Saturday.
Naghmeh Abedini in front of the White House in September 2014. He husband, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, was among five Americans freed from prison in Iran on Saturday. MCT

After more than three years in an Iranian prison, Saeed Abedini, a pastor from Boise, Idaho, whose jailing galvanized U.S. Christians, was freed Saturday, one of five Americans released just hours before the International Atomic Energy Agency certified that Iran has implemented last summer’s nuclear deal.

The freeing of the Americans and the certification marked the beginning of a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. With certification that it had fulfilled its end of the nuclear deal, senior U.S. officials said, Iran now can access roughly $50 billion in previously frozen assets and begin immediate sales of oil and natural gas, once Iran’s principal source of foreign exchange.

In addition, the Obama administration removed 400 people from a blacklist of individuals and entities associated with the Iranian government.

The officials, who spoke to reporters by conference call on condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, said that “it was not always apparent” that Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal and the prisoner releases would come at the same time. The likelihood of the two events’ converging became apparent only in the past couple of weeks, and another such moment is not expected, the officials added.

“This is a one-time-only type of arrangement,” a senior U.S. official said.

What life Abedini will be returning to in Boise after his long absence is an open question. His wife, Naghmeh, stunned her husband’s many supporters last November by publicly accusing him of abuse.

Still, she woke her children up first thing Saturday to tell them the news.

“The children are excited. They’re beside themselves,” she said. “They keep asking me ‘When are we going to see him?’”

As of Saturday morning, Naghmeh Abedini said she didn’t have a time line of when her husband would be back in the U.S. Jay Sekulow, the executive director of the American Center for Law & Justice, which has been advising Naghmeh Abedini, said Saeed Abedini was expected to be taken from Iran aboard a Swiss airliner to Germany for medical tests.

Just rest, heal and just see where he’s at mentally and physically and go from there.

Naghmeh Abedini

“He’s faced some serious medical issues throughout this three-year process,” Sekulow said.

Late Saturday, U.S. officials said Abedini and three other released Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, Jason Rezaian, had yet to leave Iran. The other Americans were Amir Hekmati, a former Marine from Flint, Mich., and Nosratallah Khosravi-Roodsari, who was identified only as a businessman.

A fifth American, identified in news reports as a student, Matthew Trevitthick, also was released, though his freedom was considered separate from the other four’s. Officials said he had already departed Iran.

In return, the United States “offered clemency to seven Iranians, six of whom are dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, who had been convicted or are pending trial in the United States,” a U.S. official said. “The United States also removed any Interpol red notices and dismissed any charges against 14 Iranians for whom it was assessed that extradition requests were unlikely to be successful.”

For Christians, it was Abedini’s release, however, that resonated the most. The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, welcomed the release in a Facebook post. “I praise God for answered prayer and thank all of you who have prayed faithfully for his release!” he wrote.

Graham and scores of other religious leaders had advocated for Abedini’s freedom, holding a vigil in front of the White House at one point and pressing for his release. Naghmeh Abedini met with President Barack Obama, who she said promised to work to bring her husband home before his term ends next January.

“I was hoping for it, but I didn't see it coming” so soon, she said.

Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-North Carolina, an evangelical Christian who’d pressed for Abedini’s release, described himself as “thrilled.” “Let’s celebrate today, and then remember to keep praying as Pastor Abedini recovers from the injuries he suffered in prison and transitions back to family life,” he said in a statement.

Idaho’s Sen. Mike Crapo, a Republican, said in a statement that Abedini’s release was “an answer to many prayers from across Idaho, the nation and the world.” Rep. Raúl Labrador also hailed Abedini’s release. “We are happy for Saeed's family and the thousands of prayerful Idahoans who have supported them through this three-and-a-half-year ordeal,” he said in a statement.

But Abedini’s return to the United States may be difficult, in part because of the religious overlay of his imprisonment.

Abedini, who converted to Christianity from Islam and who holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, was arrested in September 2012 and sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of evangelizing, which the judge termed “threatening the national security of Iran.” He was reportedly beaten severely during his imprisonment and suffered internal bleeding.

In November, Naghmeh Abedini announced that after years of tirelessly advocating for her husband’s release, she would step back from the public effort to deal with what press reports described as her concerns about “his own demons.”

In a story on the website of Christianity Today, she discussed two emails she sent to supporters in which she had noted the “physical, emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography)” she had dealt with during her marriage.

The article said she believed Abedini’s problems had grown during his time in prison in Iran. She also asked supporters to pray for her, pray for their children and to pray for her husband, and his release.

In two statements provided to the Idaho Statesman at the time, Naghmeh Abedini said she regretted sending the emails.

“I was under great psychological and emotional distress. I am now taking time off to heal and to rest and to spend much needed time with my kids,” she told The Statesman in November. “I would appreciate for those who care about Saeed and our family to give us time for rest and healing and to respect our privacy.”

She added, “I will continue to pray for my husband’s release and advocate for him as he suffers in an Iranian prison for his Christian faith. I would also ask others to join me in continuing to pray for his release.”

Saturday, she said that when her husband does return, they will work on returning to normal, she said.

“(We will) just rest, heal and just see where he’s at mentally and physically and go from there,” she said.

The prisoner release came on the same day the International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had fulfilled its end of a controversial deal intended to eliminate its ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Certification that Iran had made those steps by IAEA director general Yukiya Amano means that international sanctions imposed on Iran would soon be lifted.

The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the official Twitter account of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif saying “Diplomacy requires patience, but we all know that it sure beats the alternatives.”

He was quoted as saying “Today with the release of the IAEA chief’s report the nuclear deal will be implemented, after which a joint statement will be made to announce the beginning of the deal.”

The prisoner release was not the first U.S.-Iranian deal before the certification that Iran was implementing the nuclear accord. Iran released 10 U.S. sailors whose two small boats had strayed into Iranian waters on Thursday.

But U.S. officials stressed that the U.S. had not released anyone tied to terrorism and they said the benefit to Iran from the lifting of sanctions paled in comparison to the country’s economic needs. U.S. officials emphasized that Iran still needs “half a trillion dollars” to meet what the officials called “pressing” needs on the economic front.

Fenner, of the Idaho Statesman, reported from Boise, Schofield, from Berlin. Contributing to this report were Hannah Allam and Rob Hotakainen from Washington and Charlotte Observer religion reporter Tim Funk from Charlotte.

Matthew Schofield, @mattschodcnews Erin Fenner, @erinfenner