Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

How Rouhani Could Regain Momentum: Free Pastor Saeed Abedini

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has hit something of a rough patch in his much-ballyhooed charm offensive. Up until this week, he was clearly winning each news cycle. The dominant narrative was one of great expectation, boosting hopes that the long-sought “Iranian moderate,” the earnest quest of American foreign-policy makers since 1979, had finally emerged. Since ...

Photo: Thumbnail image from beheardproject.com/saeed
Photo: Thumbnail image from beheardproject.com/saeed
Photo: Thumbnail image from beheardproject.com/saeed

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has hit something of a rough patch in his much-ballyhooed charm offensive. Up until this week, he was clearly winning each news cycle. The dominant narrative was one of great expectation, boosting hopes that the long-sought "Iranian moderate," the earnest quest of American foreign-policy makers since 1979, had finally emerged.

Since arriving in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Rouhani has seemed to struggle. His decision not to shake President Barack Obama's hand deflated the optimists rather markedly. And even when he tried to encourage optimists by decrying the Holocaust, his government undermined him by blowing dog whistles to mollify the Holocaust-denier base of the Iranian regime. The net result has left Americans wondering just how moderate the Rouhani regime will end up being, regardless of how moderate Rouhani may or may not want to be.

Is there a bold step that Rouhani could take that would galvanize the optimists in the international community and, crucially, within the United States? I can think of one: releasing Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who is a victim of religious persecution, imprisoned for his faith inside Iran. The portion of the American public that depends only on the elite media for news will not know much about this case. I found only two brief hits (here and here) in the New York Times. However, today is the one-year anniversary of Abedini's imprisonment, and there is a full-page advertisement from Billy Graham in today's NYT print edition. Perhaps now the mainstream media will begin to pay attention to it.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani has hit something of a rough patch in his much-ballyhooed charm offensive. Up until this week, he was clearly winning each news cycle. The dominant narrative was one of great expectation, boosting hopes that the long-sought “Iranian moderate,” the earnest quest of American foreign-policy makers since 1979, had finally emerged.

Since arriving in New York for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, Rouhani has seemed to struggle. His decision not to shake President Barack Obama’s hand deflated the optimists rather markedly. And even when he tried to encourage optimists by decrying the Holocaust, his government undermined him by blowing dog whistles to mollify the Holocaust-denier base of the Iranian regime. The net result has left Americans wondering just how moderate the Rouhani regime will end up being, regardless of how moderate Rouhani may or may not want to be.

Is there a bold step that Rouhani could take that would galvanize the optimists in the international community and, crucially, within the United States? I can think of one: releasing Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen who is a victim of religious persecution, imprisoned for his faith inside Iran. The portion of the American public that depends only on the elite media for news will not know much about this case. I found only two brief hits (here and here) in the New York Times. However, today is the one-year anniversary of Abedini’s imprisonment, and there is a full-page advertisement from Billy Graham in today’s NYT print edition. Perhaps now the mainstream media will begin to pay attention to it.

Abedini’s plight has been a much bigger concern among American Christians, as well as among those of all faiths who care deeply about the “first freedom” — religious freedom. Abedini’s wife writes movingly about her husband’s plight. And she may have gotten closer to a face-to-face meeting with Rouhani than Obama did.

If Rouhani were to intervene on behalf of this victim of religious persecution, it would restore a substantial amount of charm to his charm offensive. It would broaden somewhat the political bargaining space and would wrong-foot Rouhani’s fiercest critics. Rouhani’s many supporters and well-wishers within the United States should add their voices to Billy Graham’s, encouraging Rouhani to do the right thing: free this American citizen and put Iran on the path toward respecting the basic human right of religious freedom.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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