US journalist goes on trial in Iran

The move could be a bid by hard-liners to derail talks with the US.

As an American journalist is put on trial for espionage in Iran, some in the West say Iran’s hard-liners are using her case to gain an advantage in upcoming presidential elections by derailing warming relations with the US.

Iran’s official press agency announced today that the trial of journalist Roxana Saberi, who has dual American-Iranian citizenship, began Monday, and a verdict will be issued in the next two to three weeks. US officials have called the accusations against her “baseless.”

Iranian officials first charged Ms. Saberi, who has lived in Iran for six years, with continuing to work after her press credentials were revoked. Last week, the much more serious charge of espionage was added.

But the timing of Saberi’s case points to a connection to the June presidential elections and the thaw in US-Iran relations, says Ramin Jahanbegloo, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who was arrested and detained in Iran in 2006.

“If they wanted to arrest Saberi, they could have done it a year ago,” says Professor Jahanbegloo. “Why do it now? It benefits the ultra-conservatives and those who are against any form of dialogue… They want to close the potential avenue for dialogue.”

US President Barack Obama has recently reached out to Iran, indicating a willingness to talk with the nation former President Bush called a member of the "axis of evil." Mr. Obama is also reportedly mulling dropping key preconditions for talks with Iran. (The Christian Science Monitor reported last week on the possible détente between the two nations.)

An easing of hostility between the two nations could bolster reformist candidates and weaken the position of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is expected to run for another term. Reformists are hoping that dissatisfaction with Iran’s current leadership could lead to a victory in June.

But a diplomatic incident over Saberi’s case could endanger all the progress in US-Iran relations, Jahanbegloo says.

“Those who have been critical to the Obama administration now have a word to say to all those who have been working to reengage with Iran,” he says. “They've been saying ‘Well, we told you there is no use of engaging in a dialogue with Iran,’ and those in Iran are saying the same thing. It's going to be difficult on both sides – those who want to go beyond the discourse of violence and those who are pushing very hard to delegitimize any kind of dialogue or approach between the two countries.”

Saberi is only the latest of string of Iranian-Americans who have been detained in Iran. Jahanbegloo says such detentions are often used by the Iranian regime for domestic propaganda, as a way to weaken Iranian reformists, or simply to strengthen the hostility between Iran and the West.

“[Conservatives] are using these people as tools to discredit the reformists, to discredit Iranian civil society, dialogue, and all those who have been for dialogue, non-violence, and reforms inside Iran,” he says.

Iranian-American Esha Momeni, a graduate student at California State University, Northridge, was arrested in October. She was released in November, but has been prevented from leaving Iran.

Jahanbegloo, a Canadian-American, was arrested in Tehran in April 2006, charged with supporting a “velvet revolution,” and held for four months. Four Iranian-Americans were arrested or detained in Iran in 2007, including Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who was held for more than three months.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2007 that Iran used the detained academics for progaganda.

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