Pastor Saeed Abedini is a United States citizen from Boise, Idaho, who has been imprisoned for 223 days in Iran for “crimes against the Islamic Republic,” meaning sharing his Christian faith. Despite internal bleeding and other untreated injuries caused by months of beatings and torture, he is refused medical care and kept in solitary confinement, described by his wife as a “small dark hole.” Today is his 33rd birthday.
Although Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “the best outcome for Mr. Abedini is that he be immediately released,” the United States’ virtual embassy to Iran does not feature Abedini’s story. Meanwhile, Abedini’s most vocal support has come from average Americans—not the U.S. government. An online petition for his release has more than half a million signatures.
The U.S. is currently targeting Iran with economic sanctions and is in a diplomatic standoff to prevent the country from further pursuing its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. Abedini’s fate may seem like a distraction to some, but the freedom of Abedini and thousands of persecuted and imprisoned Iranian citizens should be the centerpiece of America’s diplomatic approach to Iran—for both moral and material reasons.
Iran continues to unjustly imprison a number of its citizens for their political or religious beliefs, including a number of students arrested during the 2009 national protests against the Iranian regime. At the time, the Obama Administration squandered an opportunity to support the cause of freedom in any meaningful way.
While the American government is not legally responsible for the people of Iran, the U.S. State Department is responsible for protecting the safety and interests of American citizens abroad. In this regard, Abedini’s case has been a failure.
What can our government do? The answer to that question is illuminated by what the U.S. government has already done, even when far weaker militarily and less influential diplomatically than it is today.
Take for example the U.S. response to violence against American citizens in the Middle East in the 19th century. In 1858, Walter Dickson and his family, all U.S. citizens, were living as Christian missionaries in the Ottoman-controlled city of Jaffa. Amidst tense relations with certain local Muslims, Dickson and his family had been brutally attacked.
The incident took on an unmistakably anti-American, anti-Christian dimension when the Ottoman authorities revealed their intent to be lenient on the Dicksons’ attackers. In a quick response, the U.S. Mediterranean Naval Squadron sailed into the port of Jaffa, hoping that visible American force would have a “salutary effect” on the Ottoman officials. As hoped for, local officials then carried out an appropriate punishment on the Dicksons’ attackers, signaling that American citizens would not be helpless victims of lawlessness in that city—regardless of local justifications.
This act was in keeping with other U.S. actions of the time. Since 1815, in addition to protecting maritime trade, the U.S. Navy has sought to protect the rights of American citizens abroad. At times, the Navy actually landed troops in foreign territory where American property or U.S. citizens were threatened by intimidation, public violence, or an open revolt. Such cases occurred frequently throughout the 19th century, especially in Latin and South America.
In light of ongoing coordinated military and diplomatic actions in defense of America’s commerce and citizens, it is little wonder that American commerce expanded and the private activities of Americans abroad increased rapidly. Foreign—including potentially hostile—governments understood that America would not suffer its citizens to be harmed. While the U.S. military was not constitutionally obligated to protect American citizens and property abroad, the Founders and early U.S. statesmen understood that doing so was desirable and benefitted overall U.S. foreign policy.
Today, abandoning Abedini serves no goal of U.S. statecraft, whereas vigorously pressing for his release would highlight the widespread injustice of the Iranian regime and give America another point of leverage in the ongoing negations with Tehran over its continuing nuclear program. In fact, by failing to take a public and principled stand on Abedini’s fate, the world’s superpower and waning defender of the free world is undercutting its influence and setting a bad precedent for future Americans in peril overseas. It is yet another example of America’s current leaders opting for American decline, instead of protecting American interests.
Beginning today, American diplomats should champion the immediate and unconditional release of United States citizen Saeed Abedini.