Ahead of UN debut, Iran's new leader urged to free jailed Americans

The families of jailed Americans in Iran are pressing Iranian President Hassan Rowhani to match his conciliatory words on the world stage with actions, by releasing their loved ones.

Rowhani plans to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday for the first time as president. Ahead of his speech, President Obama announced his administration will once again pursue talks with Iran's government over its nuclear program, citing signals of a more "moderate" approach from Rowhani.

But Israeli officials, U.S. lawmakers and others are wary. And after Iran last week released 11 of its own political prisoners, family members of imprisoned Americans hope Rowhani will go further.

Naghmeh Abedini, the wife of imprisoned American Pastor Saeed Abedini, traveled to New York for the U.N. session; she said it was a trip she had to make. Her husband, a practicing Christian pastor, has been detained in Iran since last year.

Abedini told FoxNews.com she was able to hand-deliver a letter to the Iranian delegation asking for her husband's release.

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    "I didn't even know we were staying in the same hotel as the Iranian president and Iranian delegation," she said.

    If given a chance to speak to Rowhani directly, Abedini says she'd appeal to him as a father and tell him about how her "family has been torn apart simply because of a violation of Saeed's religious freedom. He's not a political prisoner even though they've labeled him as one."

    Abedini said the letter she passed on to the delegation was written by her husband from prison.

    Like Abedini, the family of Amir Hekmati, is also pleading for his release.

    On the eve of Rowhani's scheduled speech, a bipartisan group of nearly 70 lawmakers urged Rowhani to free Hekmati, a 30-year-old American and former U.S. Marine, who has been held in custody in Iran for more than two years.

    Organized by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., the members of Congress each posed for photos with a two-word sign -- "Free Amir" -- urging Hekmati's release.

    Kildee also sent a letter to Samantha Power, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., urging her to press the issue at the meeting of world leaders in New York.

    Earlier this month, Hekmati, who was born in Arizona and raised in Michigan, wrote U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a letter saying the confession he made to spying charges was done under duress. Hekmati is accused by Iran's Intelligence Ministry of working as a CIA agent, a charge his family strongly denies. They say he was in the country visiting his grandmother when he was detained.

    Last week, Iranian authorities unexpectedly freed 11 of Iran's most prominent political prisoners. They include an international journalist and a human rights lawyer.

    But some officials, like former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, remain skeptical of Iran's moves and claim the country is launching a "charm offensive" -- to fool the international community into thinking it supports human rights.

    Despite the release of prisoners, hundreds more remain behind bars, locked up and accused of trying to take down the government.

    Just how many, though, is hard to tell, Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said.

    "The Iranian government does not provide any transparent statistics about any aspect its prisoners of conscience, especially multi-nationals or bi-nationals," Ghaemi told Al Jazeera.

    Although not common, some Americans jailed in Iran have been freed.

    In 2007, Iran arrested several Iranian-Americans who were all later released. In May 2008, retired businessman Reza Taghavi was arrested on charges he supported an anti-regime group but was freed two years later.

    In 2009, three U.S. hikers, all accused of spying, were arrested. They were eventually released.