Our government is coalescing around Pastor Saeed, but it is still moving too slow and engaging at too low a level. Two weeks ago 49 Members of Congress (37 from the House and 12 Senators) sent letters to the State Department urging “strong and sustained” advocacy on Saeed’s behalf. On Friday we reported that the State Department and White House made near-identical comments within moments of each other that clearly and unequivocally called for Pastor Saeed’s release.
Following news of Saeed’s conviction, Jay Carney made yet another comment from the White House:
Well we are deeply disappointed that Saeed Abedini has been sentenced to 8 years in prison in Iran on a charge related to his religious beliefs. Mr. Abedini's attorney had only one day to present his defense, so we remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of his trial. We condemn Iran's continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion, and we call on the Iranian authorities to release Mr. Abedini. As you know the State department is in close contact with the Abedini family and is actively engaged on this case. For further date details I think the state department is the best place to go. We obviously have a variety of means, including this podium to express our views on matters like this, and we are very concerned about this and very concerned about the process that led to this.
Yesterday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom weighed in with a clear and strong statement:
“The charges against Pastor Abedini were contrived, the process was irregular and deeply flawed, and the conviction flies in the face of both Iranian and international law,” said Lantos Swett [Chair of the Commission]. “Judge Pir-Abassi has been responsible for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. We call on the Iranian government to immediately release Pastor Abedini. In addition, we call on the U.S. and the international community to raise Pastor Abedini’s case in all international fora, including the U.N. Human Rights Council. We reiterate our call for the U.S. government to freeze the assets and deny entry into the U.S. of Judge Pir-Abassi, and other Iranian judges and government officials who have committed violations of religious freedom and related human rights, including the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who would have had to approve the Pastor’s harsh sentence.”
While these words are welcome, neither the White House nor State Department have engaged at the high level this case requires. As a former state department official noted today on Fox News (which has been invaluable in its relentless coverage of Saeed’s case), high-level engagement is critical. Lantos Swett’s message is exactly right, but it should also come formally from the White House and State Department. Such a formal statement would represent precisely the right message to convey to the United Nations and European Union.
Let’s be clear, however, the international community will take its cues from America. If our own government isn’t out front in supporting one of its own citizens, we cannot expect the UN and EU to lead. Today we launched our petition to mobilize the international community, and the response is already overwhelming (42,000 signatures in less than a day). Our petition asking the Obama Administration and Congress to engage has garnered more than 250,000 signatures. This action is getting results, and with Pastor Saeed’s life and freedom at stake, now is no time for diplomatic timidity.