Suddenly, there's a glimmer of hope for Saeed Abedini, an American pastor arrested and imprisoned in Iran for being a Christian.
American Center for Law and Justice Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said the recent mention by an Iranian official of possible clemency is a positive signal.
"It's opening the door to a direct act. He didn't have to say this; he didn't have to go and use a specific word or a specific effect. Clemency is a specific; it's not a word he just pulled out of his hat," Sekulow said.
Sekulow said he also believes the clemency statement is ultimately coming from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
"Yes, he allowed it, but the statement made clear that the executive usually doesn't do this, but he said they have. He didn't say they always do, but the executive branch has given clemency," Sekulow said.
It was Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif who told a reporter recently that the Iranian government may consider opening the door for the release of Abedini. Speaking to a CNN reporter, Zarif talked about clemency.
"We have various clemency measures in Iran that can be introduced. [It has] happened in the past, [it] can be introduced again in these cases," Zarif said.
However, Zarif stopped short of saying the action could be taken by the executive branch, saying it is "something for the judiciary to decide."
Analysts say that clemency allows Iran to still regard Abedini as guilty of undermining the country's national security while offering a goodwill gesture.
Other analysts are more guarded in their assessment of the foreign minister's comment.
Mark Durie, human rights activist and adjunct fellow at Australia's Center for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths, said Zarif's statement is another Iranian effort to control the debate.
"This is a hopeful sign. However, I wouldn't call this reaching out to the West. It is more like managing the West. Iran's objectives are assisted if the West relaxes sanctions, and it gives breathing room for it to pursue its political, economic and military objectives," Durie said.
He said an American pastor in an Iranian prison "is like a pebble in their shoe, which they don't need, as it poisons American opinion against them."
"However, Iran must balance this against the upwelling tide of Iranians converting to the Christian faith and the need it feels to suppress and inhibit this movement," Durie said.
Durie believes that if the Iranians release the pastor, it would more likely be a pragmatic move rather than a change of policy toward religion.
Middle East Forum President Daniel Pipes agrees that political motivations were involved. Pipes said the Iranians may be concerned about the sanctions bill pending in the U.S. Senate.
"This is an easy way to win goodwill when much larger issues are at stake. Perhaps one or two senators might not support the new sanctions bill because of this flexibility," Pipes said.
Still, Sekulow believes there must be genuine movement in the Iranian government for Zarif to make the comment. While the statement may have been calculated, he said, the foreign minister has drawn criticism for similar comments in the past.
"He's taken heat at home before for making statements like this, so I don't think he would say something like that unless he believes it's possible," Sekulow said.
"I don't think he's just kicking the can down the road. He did say it's not something they always do at the executive branch, but it's something they could do," Sekulow said. "They have done it before, so he made it clear that it's not unprecedented."
However, Sekulow is careful not to jump to conclusions.
"You don't take anything for granted, but at this point, it's something. Instead of discounting this, we have to take every opportunity to move forward when there is a new avenue available," he said.
"This is a word they haven't used before. It's a glimmer. We're not overly excited by it until we see more and hear more. However, he wasn't pressured into making the statement. It's opening a door," Sekulow said.
There also are other moves.
"We issued a statement recently saying that pastor Abedini was moved to a less dangerous part of the prison and that he is receiving more medical care. He still needs surgery to repair the injuries from his beatings, but he has been moved," he said.
"The situation is not ideal, but there are signs that the Iranians are ready to reach a deal because this issue has become an embarrassment to them. American media companies are now asking them about pastor Saeed in interviews. This may be their way of trying to resolve this at a time when there are other major issues on the table," Sekulow said.
Abedini has been in prison in Iran for more than 490 days, and this week marks the one-year anniversary of the pastor's conviction.
In response to inquiries from WND on the White House position on Abedini, White House National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan issued a statement.
"We continue to have serious concerns about fate of Saeed Abedini," she said. "Mr Abedini has been sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs. President Obama raised Mr. Abedini's case in his September 27 phone call with President Rouhani, and we continue to urge the Iranian government to release Mr. Abedini so that he may be reunited with his family as soon as possible. We call again on Iranian authorities to permit a visit by officials of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to determine the well-being of Mr. Abedini."
WND reported in December that the White House's lack of involvement in Abedini's case may be because he is a Christian pastor.
A growing number of U.S. analysts, human-rights activists and even a congressman, angered by the nuclear deal reached with Iran without demanding the release of Abedini, now believe Obama neglected the prisoner because he's a Christian.
One of those experts is William Murray, president of the Religious Freedom Coalition. He told WND the Obama administration doesn't see religion the same way a Christian would.
"He sees religion as a 'tradition,' as in the way Joe Biden says he's from a Catholic tradition," Murray said. "Obama, like most secularists, cannot understand religion affecting the lives of those that believe outside the setting of a church, hence his reference to freedom of worship that he confuses with freedom of religion."
In the end, Sekulow said whether Iran still believes Abedini is guilty is unimportant. The important detail is the American pastor's freedom.
"How the Iranians handle it, that's not unusual for them to still maintain that the person is guilty. In the end, that's what people are looking for, his release and his return home – those two things. What happens there between the judiciary and the executive is unimportant. It's whether nor not he's on a plane home returning to his family," Sekulow said.
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