Why Iran Freed Roxana Saberi

Posted on

May 11, 2009, 2:47 pm

By The Editors

(Photo: Stan Honda/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Demonstrators show support for Roxana Saberi near the United Nations headquarters in New York on May 3, World Press Freedom Day.

An Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was tried and sentenced to eight years in prison in April on charges of spying for Washington, was released Monday after an appeals court reduced the sentence.

Iran has detained several Western journalists in recent years, though in most cases they have been expelled rather than tried. Ms. Saberi, however, is a dual citizen of Iran and the United States. What does her release signal about Tehran’s approach to the Obama administration and its interest in engaging in a dialogue with the U.S.?

No Easing of Fears

Robin Wright, a policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of four books on Iran. Her most recent book is “Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East.” She was in Iran in March.

Roxana Saberi’s release may remove a major obstacle to U.S. efforts at rapprochement with Iran after 30 years of diplomatic tensions. If her eight-year sentence had been upheld by the appeals court, President Obama would surely have faced serious questions about whether Washington can really deal with Tehran.

In the Opinion section

Editorial: Journalist Released

But Ms. Saberi’s arrest on “espionage” charges and her one-day trial –- without legal defense — also underscore Iran’s ongoing suspicions about U.S. policy and the intense internal differences concerning the new U.S. administration. The election of Barack Hussein Obama –- Hussein is one of two central figures in Shiite Islam –- has not eased the fears of many hard-line theocrats in predominantly Shiite Iran.

Neither Iran nor the U.S. appears ready to go beyond words to forge a different relationship.

For the past two years, Iran has detained several Iranian-American dual nationals because of suspected links to a U.S.-orchestrated “velvet revolution” to undermine theocratic rule. The detentions signaled anger about American policy. None of the detainees is believed to have acted against the regime. One scholar advised a government ministry; others were visiting family.

But Ms. Saberi’s arrest went further than any previous case. And the espionage charges and trial happened after President Obama’s overture to Iran on its new year, March 21.

In the end, the Iranian-Americans were released after apparent intervention from higher up, in some cases including the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The regime, in the end, understands the broader stakes.

Yet neither side appears ready to take the big steps -– in tangible ways, beyond words –- to forge a different relationship. Washington’s Iran policy is based on carrots-and-sticks, an approach Iranians disdain as a way to treat donkeys. And Iran’s stick-and-carrot approach in turn alienates Americans who see it as an unacceptable way to treat humans.

Iran’s Bad Strategy

Parnaz Azima is a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

She spent eight months under house arrest in Tehran in 2007. Since leaving Iran, she has been convicted of “anti-state propaganda” and sentenced to two years in prison. Last year, an appeals court reversed that decision and suspended her sentence, but any attempt to enter Iran will likely lead to her arrest.

Roxanna Saberi’s release from prison comes as a relief to those of us who have been following her case and hoping for a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States. The fact that her appeal and release happened so quickly reinforces my belief that this was a political case and not a legal one.

Iran has a history of using Iranian-Americans to put pressure on the United States.

I credit the pressure the international community brought on Iran for the decision to reduce her eight-year prison sentence to a two-year suspended sentence. Iran’s leaders realized that the case was escalating tensions with the U.S. at the very moment that President Obama was showing a willingness to engage with Tehran and begin a process of rapprochement. Radio Farda listeners in Iran are echoing this, saying that Ms. Saberi’s release is an attempt to reduce strain with Washington.

Iran has a history of trying to use Iranian-Americans like me and Ms. Saberi to put pressure on the United States. In almost every case, however, the strategy backfires. It’s a wonder they keep trying it.

The Hard-Liners Lost

Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

If Roxana Saberi was at the center of political tug of war in Iran, then it’s clear which side pulled the hardest.

Ms. Saberi was first detained in January and accused of buying a bottle of wine, a minor offense in Iran. Two months later, a Revolutionary Court convicted her of espionage and sentenced her to eight years in prison.

The international response to Saberi’s conviction clearly caught the Iranian leadership by surprise.

Most observers believe that hard-line forces within Iran, particularly those who control Evin prison where Ms. Saberi was being held, saw in her harsh treatment an opportunity to scuttle any possible opening the United States created by President Obama’s overtures.

But the international response to her conviction – which ranged from Facebook petitions to expressions of concern by political leaders around the world – clearly caught the Iranian leadership by surprise. Both Iranian President Mamoud Ahmadinejad and the head of Iran’s judiciary publicly called for a thorough review of the Saberi case on appeal.

Roxana Saberi’s release suggests the hard-line forces lost the battle. The fact that Iran was forced to respond to international pressure is a significant development, and one that could open the door for human rights and press freedom groups to apply additional leverage as the June 12 presidential elections approach.

But it does not mean that Iran has become a more hospitable place for the press. At least six journalists are imprisoned in Iran, and they have been denied even the modicum of due process that was extended to Ms. Saberi. With elections looming, Iran’s journalism community, including those who work for international media outlets, have been given a clear reminder that Iranian authorities could move against them at any time.

Isolation Was the Goal

Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Everyone who knows Roxana Saberi was shocked to learn of her arrest last January. Of all my journalist friends in Iran, her reporting was always the most cautious. As a friend in Tehran put it, “if you had asked me to list 1,000 people the regime would potentially target, Roxana wouldn’t have been among them.” Several Iranian officials I spoke to conceded that the charges against her — espionage — were completely baseless.

So why did the Iranian authorities imprison her? Didn’t they realize that would damage Iran’s international reputation and increase its political and economic isolation? Didn’t they understand that by imprisoning an American citizen they would diminish the prospects of a diplomatic breakthrough with the United States? The answer is yes, and that is precisely what they’re hoping to achieve.

The hard-liners know that openness would undermine the political and economic monopolies they currently enjoy.

Going back to the 1979 hostage crisis, hard-line factions in Tehran have a history of provoking international incidents to advance their domestic political agendas. Figures like Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a powerful supporter of President Ahmadinejad, argue that enmity toward the United States was a fundamental pillar of the 1979 revolution and central to the identity of the Islamic Republic: “If pro-American tendencies come to power in Iran we have to say goodbye to everything. After all, anti-Americanism is among the main features of our Islamic state.”

But while they cloak their hostility toward the United States with appeals to ideological purity, these actors — including powerful, aging clergymen and nouveau riche Revolutionary Guardsmen — are usually driven by power and greed. They recognize that improved ties with Washington would lead to greater openness, which would undermine the political and economic monopolies they enjoy in isolation.

Iran’s hard-liners may have calculated that after four months, the costs of holding on to Roxana Saberi outweighed any continued benefits. After all, there are now many voices in Washington arguing that engaging Tehran’s leadership is an exercise in futility. The Obama administration should understand that this is precisely the conclusion her jailers would like us to draw.

Part of the Game

Ali Shakeri is a peace activist with the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine. He was arrested in May 2007 at the Tehran airport and held for 140 days in Iran’s notorious Evin prison on false charges of attempting to overthrow the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I had this feeling back when we had our original discussion in April that Roxana Saberi’s release from prison was imminent.

This kind of arrest is sadly part of the power struggle between political factions in Iran.

This kind of arrest is sadly part of the power struggle between political factions in Iran. The overwhelming majority of Iranians want a dialogue, a relationship and mutual respect with the United States. But unfortunately, a minority of hard-liners is trying to derail the election with accusations that Iran’s reformist candidates are puppets of American foreign policy. It’s simply not true.

Ms. Saberi’s arrest was part of this game. Her release now shows that the belief held by the majority is the common understanding among the Iranian people.

In my case, lengthy interrogations by Iranian officials proved the charges were baseless. This, coupled with pressure from human rights groups around the world, helped win my release. In Roxana’s case, it was the news media’s vast campaign on her behalf. This combination of understanding within the country and pressure from outside is very effective.

I am so happy that Roxana Saberi has been released. I hope the scar on her life and her family’s, will disappear over time, and that they will all be able to continue with their lives.


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