Amid Nuke Negotiations, the White House and Rand Paul Push for Release of Iranian-Held U.S. Prisoners

After an Iranian official suggested possible clemency for two American prisoners in the country, the Obama administration “will continue to press for their release” even as the two countries are negotiating an easing of sanctions in exchange, a White House spokeswoman told TheBlaze.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a news conference with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul, Turkey, Saturday, Jan. 4 , 2014. Zarif is in Turkey for a one-day working visit.(AP Photo) AP Photo

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN a reduced sentence for two Americans, a pastor and former Marine.

“We have various clemency measures in Iran that can be introduced, happened in the past, can be introduced again in these cases,” Zarif said in the interview from from Davos, Switzerland.

Zarif added, “That is something for the judiciary to decide.” But the mere suggesting prompted hope among advocates for their release.”

TheBlaze asked the White House if the nuclear negotiations and thawing relationship could have had an impact on Zarif’s suggestion.

“We remain deeply concerned about U.S. citizen Saeed Abedini, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told TheBlaze Wednesday. “We also continue to have serious concerns about the fate of Amir Hekmati, who has been detained by Iranian officials and was sentenced on false espionage charges. We will continue to press for their release until they are safely returned to their families.”

Saeed Abedini is an Iranian-American Christian pastor accused of proselytizing Christianity during a trip to Iran and of trying to undermine the Iranian government and endangering national security. Abedini’s family and the legal advocacy group representing them, the American Center for Law and Justice, has said he is behind bars in a dangerous prison.

Amir Hekmati is a former U.S. Marine serving in Iraq. He was arrested in Iran in August 2011 on espionage charges, but the Obama administration has said he is not a spy.

On Jan. 24, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) sent a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani asking for clemency for Abedini, noting the pastor’s health was deteriorating.

“I wish to remain cautiously optimistic regarding the recent diplomatic progress between our two nation,” Paul said. “However, I must point out that if something were to happen to Pastor Abedini while he is incarcerated, any good will forged over the past few months would likely evaporate. Conversely, granting clemency to Pastor Abedini and allowing him to return to the United States would do much to create a positive atmosphere that would reflect well on future discussions.”

Jordan Sekulow, executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which launched a petition to get Abedini released, called the Iranian foreign minister’s comments a “glimmer of hope.”

“Could Iran be willing to give Pastor Saeed clemency? Could it be willing to release him to return to his wife and two children here in the U.S.?” Sekulow said in a statement. “One thing is for sure: Pastor Saeed’s release would be a monumental humanitarian gesture for Iran. Clemency would give Iran the opportunity, within their own judicial system, to release Pastor Saeed and show the world that it is serious about changing its human rights’ record.”

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