A Texas congressman charges the State Department is mishandling the case of American pastor Saeed Abedini, who is being held in an Iranian prison.
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said federal officials appear to be using quiet diplomacy in Abedini's case.
That approach, he contends, is the opposite of what should be done.
"The State Department almost universally when it's a hostage situation, and this is really what it is, [stays] quiet for fear of doing harm. And I think it's the exact opposite. When you stay quiet, you will cause harm, and it doesn't raise the problem to the people who are in charge," he said.
Stockman said the Iranians originally intended to use the pastor as a "bargaining chip."
"You know, we had some of their officers in the Quds Force, and the Iranians were going to bargain for their release. But apparently, the Obama administration while negotiating just traded the prisoners without getting anything in return, which kind of surprised the Iranians," Stockman said.
"Normally there's an exchange and we got nothing in return, when in reality we should have pushed for the release of the pastor," said the congressman.
He said now he would "encourage" the American people to get more involved directly in Abedini's case, because he's not seeing much input from the public.
"I would like to see something more visible and the family actually get involved more, going on TV and other things," Stockman said.
American Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Jordan Sekulow agrees. More public involvement is what is needed in light of the government's nearly uniform silence on the American pastor, he said.
"The issue is getting the attention of Congress. I think the petitions have worked to the extent that they got Congress' attention. We've had congressional hearings. They have done what they can and they will continue to help. But, they can only do so much," Sekulow said.
Sekulow acknowledges that Congress isn't the State Department, but petitions can still generate some attention.
"We've seen bipartisan support and we've seen the State Department have to pay attention," Sekulow said. "We wouldn't have had the congressional hearings, the message … to Secretary Kerry, and we wouldn't have had the White House make any statements at all but for the American people speaking up."
International Christian Concern Middle East analyst Todd Daniels believes citizen action can be effective, if it mobilizes larger sections of the population.
"The strategy to engage other parties that have a vested interest is certainly possible as part of the overall efforts to see Saeed be released, as sanctions on certain sectors are being lifted," Daniels said.
Human rights activists have been disappointed with the limited amount of attention shown to Abedini's case.
However, Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes isn't surprised by the lack of government engagement. He said the U. S. government historically has shown little interest in Iran's human rights record.
"The U.S. government historically has downplayed human rights issues vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran, focusing instead on terrorism and the nuclear buildup," Pipes said.
He said it adds a burden for citizen groups.
"This leaves NGOs in the unenviable position of trying to raise human rights issues, which are largely ignored by Tehran. Unless Washington and the other powers include human rights, this will not change," Pipes said.
Daniels believes NGOs and the U.N. could play a role.
"There may be steps remaining for pushing for international bodies to review his case for what appear to be irregularities and a violation of international norms. While these may not be binding measures, it could force Iran to give an account for the charges on which Saeed is being held and could lead to an avenue by which his conviction or sentencing could be overturned," Daniels said.
However, Daniels noted actions on the non-governmental level have had little impact on Iran.
"Many of these options have been pursued to no avail, but the injustice in this case demands that the efforts to see his release come should continue. While it appears that the huge amount of effort so far has fallen on deaf ears, it is important to remember that God, who ultimately moves on these decisions, does hear. So the appeals before that throne should continually be made by His people," Daniels said.
Sekulow believes that reaching out to corporations that do business in Iran could become an avenue to build more interest in Abedini's case.
"We're looking at learning how we can positively work with the businesses that may be gaining from the sanctions being lifted. We're not looking to do anything negatively but to see how we can positively let those people who they work with in Iran … see what can be done to get this American released," Sekulow said.
Daniels agrees with Sekulow that the concept of corporations acting on Abedini's interest has potential.
"Iran is slowly becoming increasingly integrated with the global economy. So if there were corporations willing to call for tangible improvements on rights issues (the release of Abedini) as part of their bargaining to pursue business ventures, that may be leveraged to help move the decision makers towards releasing Saeed," Daniels said.
Mark Durie, an adjunct fellow at Australia's Center for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, is skeptical that corporate pressure can succeed, because Iran's "business interests" have limited power.
"The potential problems with this suggestion are twofold: one is that Iranian business people generally do not have that much leverage with the regime. Indeed for them to lobby on behalf of a Christian in prison could be personally dangerous for them. Iran is not an open and free society in which it is open to people to lobby their government on such matters," Durie said.
Pipes believes that, ultimately, the movement to free the American pastor will have to come from within Iran.
Sekulow said the American government and its people both need to be pressing Iran for Abedini's release.
WND reported in December that Saeed Abedini's wife, Nagmeh Abedini, testified before a House subcommittee hearing on human rights. The hearing was chaired by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who observed the injustice of the pastor's jail time.
"Pastor Abedini is an American citizen, but he was told he could re-enter Iran to carry on his relief work. The Iranian government offered him safe entry. He accepted the Iranian government's offer for safe passage, but the Iranian government hasn't kept its promise," Smith said.
Smith said "the fact that they moved him to the more dangerous prison shows that they knew he would be an important factor in the negotiations."
"He's an American citizen, and he remains in an absolute hell-hole in Iran. We can't waste this opportunity."
Nagmeh Abedini has announced she plans to attend the sixth annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in February.
"This will give me a worldwide platform to speak out about religious freedom issues and Christian persecution," she said.
Abedini first was held in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison and later was transferred to an even worse location – the 22,000-inmate Rajai Shahr, home to drug dealers, murderers and rapists. He was working in Iran under a government-approved building plan when he was arrested in 2012.
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