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Iran deal doesn't mention detained American pastor Saeed Abedini

By Catherine E. Shoichet and Eric Marrapodi, CNN
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 0616 GMT (1416 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Administration officials: Push for Saeed Abedini's release will continue
  • Wife: "He's not going to survive even a few months in that prison"
  • Abedini's supporters say the Obama administration betrayed him
  • An interim nuclear deal reached with Iran doesn't secure the pastor's release from prison

(CNN) -- Two words are nowhere to be found in the pages of text that spell out a new interim nuclear deal with Iran: Saeed Abedini.

Now some supporters of the American pastor, who's been detained in Iran for more than a year, are accusing U.S. officials of betraying Abedini by signing off on an agreement that doesn't get him out of prison.

"We were across the table from the Iranians, and we did not bring home Americans. To me that's a tragedy and that's outrageous," said Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, which represents Abedini's family in the United States.

While analysts debated the nuclear agreement's pros and cons, Abedini's wife, Naghmeh, said she was trying to comfort her two young children.

Wife: Our family's been torn apart
Detainees not included in Iran deal

"It's very painful," she told CNN's "The Lead" on Monday. "My kids were crying this morning, saying, 'God, don't let Daddy die. Bring him home.' "

Abedini, a 33-year-old U.S. citizen of Iranian birth, was sentenced to eight years in prison earlier this year, accused of attempting to undermine the Iranian government and endangering national security by establishing home churches. At the time, an Iranian state news agency said he would soon be released on bail -- but Abedini's family says he remains behind bars in a dangerous prison, wrongfully imprisoned because of his Christian faith.

Family members who visited him in prison recently said his health had deteriorated, Naghmeah Abedini said. And U.S. officials should do more to push for his release, she said.

"I expect them to speak out and say, 'We asked for his release, and this is horrible what has happened,' " she said. "And he's not going to survive even a few months in that prison."

U.S. President Barack Obama pushed for the release of Abedini and two other detained Americans -- Robert Levinson and Amir Hekmati -- when he spoke on the phone with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in September.

It was the only issue other than Iran's nuclear program that Obama brought up, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken said.

"He asked for Rouhani's assistance in freeing them and allowing them to return to the United States, and Rouhani said that he would look into it," Blinken said.

Asked why Abedini's fate wasn't part of the interim nuclear deal with Iran, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the Geneva talks "focused exclusively on nuclear issues."

White House officials told CNN that negotiations for Abedini and other detained Americans in Iran are ongoing.

"We've been repeatedly clear that we're calling on Iran to release them," Blinken said. "The president' raised it, we will continue to raise it, and we hope to see them return home."

One analyst told CNN Monday that focusing on nuclear policy was the right approach for the talks.

"In any negotiation, you've got to decide how much you're going to try to accomplish, and just tackling all the dimensions of the nuclear agreement is ambition enough," said Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Naghmeah Abedini and her attorney argued that officials could have done more, making the Americans' release a precondition for any sanctions relief.

"It is disheartening and discouraging that fighting for religious freedom and wrongful imprisonment of a U.S. citizen is no longer a priority for a country that was founded on such values," she said in a written statement to CNN.

Saeed Abedini converted to Christianity from Islam and then became a pastor, living in Boise, Idaho. He regularly made trips to Iran and was working on a government-approved orphanage when he was arrested last year, his family said.

He was on a bus crossing from Turkey into Iran last summer when immigration officials took away his passport. He was later put under house arrest. Authorities took him to the notorious Evin prison in September 2012 while he awaited trial.

In January a judge from the Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Court sentenced him to eight years in prison.

On a Facebook page dedicated to pushing for Abedini's freedom, dozens of supporters criticized the nuclear deal and said they were praying for the pastor's release.

"It's so senseless that our government would betray an American citizen like this ... especially under these unique circumstances. ... They had the opportunity," Gina Lewis Morrison wrote.

Abedini's wife said Monday that she won't stop fighting for her husband's freedom.

She told "The Lead" that she had a message for her husband.

"Hang in there. I'm spending every waking moment working to get you out," she said. "The kids and I miss you and we're proud of you for standing up for what you believe and your values."

CNN's John Berman, Wolf Blitzer, Jamie Crawford and Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report.

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