Iran release of US journalist removes obstacle to US-Iran dialogue

Roxanna Saberi was freed after three months in prison on charges of spying.

Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP
In Tehran, Iran, on Monday, Reza Saberi and his wife, Akiko, wait for their daughter Roxana to leave Evin prison. Ms. Saberi was released and reunited with her parents after an appeals court reduced a previous eight-year sentence for espionage.
Michel Euler/AP
On April 28, a member of Reporters Without Borders holds placards with the picture of American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was jailed in Tehran, Iran.
US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is seen in this March 2004 file photo. On Monday, Ms. Saberi was freed from Evin prison in Tehran, Iran, after three months in jail on charges of spying.

The decision to free Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi Monday after more than three months behind bars in Iran removes one of many obstacles to a new US-Iran dialogue pursued by President Barack Obama, while also clearing away the episode in the runup to Iran's hotly contested presidential election next month.

Ms. Saberi was released and reunited with her parents after an appeals court reduced a previous eight-year sentence for espionage.

Analysts suggest the arrest and heavy original sentence were part of an internal political struggle in Iran, in which hard-liners used the case of the US-born Saberi to complicate any bid to reciprocate recent positive overtures from Washington.

Saberi walked out of Evin Prison on Monday, her release greeted with joy and relief by her waiting father, Reza, and mother, Akiko, who have been in Iran since March to push for their daughter's freedom. Ms. Saberi ended a two-week hunger strike after being briefly hospitalized last week.

"So practically, she is free as of now," Mr. Saberi told journalists outside Evin prison. "She is in good condition, and we are very happy that they gave us such a break for her."

The court reduced Saberi's sentence to a two-year suspended term, in keeping with recent signals from Tehran that her case would be treated with "compassion." Saberi denied charges of spying for the United States. Washington said those charges were "baseless," and Mr. Obama and other senior officials said they were concerned about Saberi's fate.

"Whenever there are moments of potential confidence-building between the US and Iran, you have a hard-line faction in Tehran – the spoilers – who have a long history, dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis, of provoking an international crisis in order to forward their domestic political agenda," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"These hard-line factions very openly say that enmity toward the United States is one of the pillars of the revolution, and central to the identity of the Islamic Republic," says Mr. Sadjadpour. The arrest of Saberi fit that context, though the increasing international pressure – from the media, and even upon Iranian diplomats confronted abroad by questions about Saberi's plight – meant the "costs began to outweigh any benefit."

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had made a rare intervention, warning Iran's judiciary to ensure that Saberi and an imprisoned Iranian-Canadian blogger had "all freedoms and legal rights" to defend themselves.

The new verdict came after a five-hour hearing Sunday, during which Iranian officials emphasized legal procedure, allowing Saberi to defend herself and two lawyers to speak on her behalf. That appeal was in sharp contrast to the original lightning trial of April 13, held in secret and without lawyers, in which sentencing took place in less than an hour.

Saberi has worked for NPR, the BBC, and Fox. She will now be banned from working as a journalist in Iran for five years. Lawyer Saleh Nikbakht said the appeal had found that the original charge of "cooperating with a hostile state" was struck down, because the US and Iran could not be defined as mutually hostile toward one another.

The reduced and suspended sentence was based on a charge of "gathering secret documents," Mr. Nikbakht said, according to Agence France-Presse. Saberi is free to leave Iran.

The former American beauty queen, who has lived in Iran for six years and had been working on a book about Iran, first told her parents by telephone that she had been arrested for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in the Islamic state. Then officials said Saberi had been working illegally, since her press card was revoked two years ago.

Finally, the much more serious charges of espionage were laid down. Saberi's father said his daughter had been "deceived" into making a confession that was later used against her. Before and during her hunger strike, the father reported that Ms. Saberi had lost weight and was suicidal.

The case that grabbed headlines in the West also factored into Iran's political dynamic, where the arch-conservative Mr. Ahmadinejad is up for reelection in a June 12 vote, but under fire from a wide spectrum of opponents for his poor handling of the economy and for aggressive foreign policy speeches.

In the past four years, Ahmadinejad has also taken a number of unprecedented steps to ease 30 years of hostility between the US and Iran heralded by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. He wrote letters to former President George Bush and the American people, offered to debate Mr. Bush, and said that Iran and the US could be "good friends" if American policies changed.

He also wrote a letter of congratulations to Obama almost immediately after the US leader's election victory. The US State Department has said that Iran would "win American goodwill" if Saberi were released.

Ahmadinejad "is in a difficult position, because his most powerful clerical backers … are very open in their contempt for the US, and are very open in saying that were the Islamic Republic to open up to the US, it would lead to the demise of the entire [Islamic] system," says Sadjadpour at Carnegie.

"On the other hand, he is in an election year and he has to appeal to a young population, which is overwhelmingly in favor of an improved relationship with the US," he adds. "So [Ahmadinejad] is trying to reconcile two essentially irreconcilable positions."

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