The U.S. government is being criticized by the American Center for Law and Justice for releasing an Iranian nuclear scientist as part of negotiation talks with the Islamic Republic, while failing to strike a deal for imprisoned pastor Saeed Abedini and other Americans held in Iran.
"This is betrayal," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the ACLJ, according to Fox News. "A betrayal because not only did they not get the release of the three Americans, but they said they are working on this 'on the margins.' Our citizens are on the margins and then we are releasing an Iranian convicted on working on the nuclear issue."
The ACLJ, which represents Abedini's wife and two children in the U.S., has spoken at length about the U.S.-Iran negotiations, and asked why the Obama administration did not insist on the release of the pastor, who is serving eight years in prison because of his Christian faith.
The scientist, Mojtaba Atarodi, was arrested in California in 2011 for trying to help Iran's nuclear program by circumventing western sanctions, and has written over 30 technical articles about micro-engineering. A Times of Israel report revealed that he was released in April as part of "back channel talks."
The State Department has apparently defended its actions, insisting that it is continuing to push for Abedini's release outside of the nuclear talks.
"The P5+1 talks focused exclusively on nuclear issues, but we have raised-repeatedly raised-his case and the cases of other detained American citizens including [former U.S. Marine] Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini in our bilateral discussions with Iran, including President Obama's phone call with President Rouhani in September, so as recently as then, and we will continue to do so," U.S. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said. Along with Abedini and Hekmati, ex-FBI Agent Robert Levinson is also among the three Americans being held in Iran.
The ACLJ has argued, however, that a very good opportunity has been missed to bring the American pastor back home to his family.
"President Obama and Secretary of State [John] Kerry turned their backs on a U.S. citizen by refusing to secure his freedom before reaching an agreement with Iran. It is outrageous and a betrayal of American Pastor Saeed Abedini who has spent more than a year in an Iranian prison simply because of his Christian faith," Sekulow previously said.
The nuclear deal and lack of action on Abedini's case has attracted the attention of notable figures, including American billionaire Donald Trump, who asked Obama to pressure Iran to release the Christian pastor, or else increase the sanctions.
"How does Obama rationalize giving Iran $8B in sanction relief when a Christian pastor is being tortured in an Iranian prison?" Trump asked on Twitter.
Sekulow added that it is a "dire and desperate" situation that the U.S. government has been unwilling to make the release of Americans held in Iran a top priority in the negotiation talks.
"Our government is not taking the real human rights issues here seriously," the ACLJ chief counsel maintained.