On Monday, an Iranian-American journalist imprisoned on charges of spying for the US was released in Tehran. It removes an obstacle to President Obama’s opening to Iran but also illustrates the volatility of the Iranian government.
Jailed since January, the journalist Roxana Saberi (photo, from nytimes.com), 32, was released after an appeals court rejected her eight-year sentence. This happened a month after Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a letter urging the court to be fair in its review.
A deepening divide within the country’s leadership about how to respond to president Obama’s recent overtures is underlined by Iran’s handling of the Saberi case, said American officials. Analysts said it also reflects domestic politics a month before Mr. Ahmadinejad faces a critical election.
“Those who are trying to engage the US won out”, said a senior administration official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “There wasn’t going to be any major new administration initiative toward Iran without this case resolved.”
On Tuesday, in her first public remarks since her release, Ms Saberi told reporters that she was very happy to be free and reunited with her parents. She thanked those who helped win her release.
She said she did not have any immediate, specific plans and wanted to spend time with her family.
“I am very happy that I have been released and reunited with my father and mother”, she said. “I am very grateful to all the people who knew me or didn’t know me and helped for my release.”
She was wearing a turquoise head scarf and smiling on television images. Reporters who knew her said she looked thinner than before her arrest, which is probably a result of a hunger strike in prison, which she ended after two weeks because of health problems.
‘In good condition’
Ms Saberi has lived in Iran since 2003 and worked as a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and the BBC. She had originally been arrested for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran, before the charges were elevated to working without a press credential and espionage.
She will return to the United States in the coming days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters in Washington.
“We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released”, said Mrs. Clinton, who had called for the release.
Ms. Saberi’s father, Reza Saberi, lives in Fargo, N.D., but was born in Iran. He told reporters outside his family home here that his daughter was “exhausted but in good condition”. Ms. Saberi did not talk to reporters after leaving Evin prison, which is known for housing political prisoners.
American officials and outside analysts think Ms. Saberi’s arrest was politically motivated, when the Obama administration is reaching out to Iran after nearly three decades of hostility. According to some analysts, the Iranian government sought to use the arrest of a journalist to gain leverage in talks with the US over its nuclear program and other matters.
However, the political cost of keeping her in prison may have come to seem too high with Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton both taking up the reporter’s cause, analysts said. The internal tug-of-war over the case is showed by the fact that the severity of the charges against Ms Saberi was changed, said officials.
“They understood that this wouldn’t help them”, said Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state who has conducted informal talks with Iranians. “They were asking the U.S. to put words into action, and at the same time, they were going in the opposite direction.”
A month before the elections
In his four years in office, Mr Ahmadinejad, who is seeking re-election on June 12, intervened in a judicial case for the first time by sending the letter about Ms Saberi’s case to the court. If the Iranian president could advance negotiations with the US before the election, it would help his prospects, said analysts.
“Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to take serious steps towards improving ties with the United States before the elections”, said Ibrahim Yazdi, a political analyst in Tehran. “If he succeeds, it would be to his interest.”
For example, if the US were to establish an interest section in Tehran, Iranians could obtain visas to the US directly, without traveling to a third country, as they have to do now.
President Obama taping a greeting for the Iranian people on the Persian New Year and the administration announcing that it would take part, along with other major powers, in face-to-face negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, were some of the gestures made by the US towards Iran.
According to analysts, the two countries may have an opportunity to find common cause with the threat of a Taliban insurgency in Pakistan. Taliban militants on its eastern borders is seen as a major threat by Iran, which cooperated with the US in operations in Afghanistan in 2001.
Last month, during a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague attended by Mrs Clinton, the US handed Iranian diplomats a letter calling for the release of Ms. Saberi, along with two other Americans who are missing or detained in Iran : Robert Levinson and Esha Momeni.
A senior State Department official said that the release of Ms saberi appears to the US as a “partial response” to that letter. Yet it should not be viewed as a “grand gesture of détente”, he added.
The official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said the US did not offer Iran any quid pro quo for the release of Ms. Saberi.
‘To the verge of a nervous breakdown”
Several weeks ago, Ms Saberi’s parents traveled to Tehran in order to lobby for her freedom. “Her release was a big surprise”, an emotional Mr. Saberi told reporters.
In April, his daughter was found guilty in a trial that he said lasted less than an hour. The appeals court rejected the original jail term and handed down a two-year suspended sentence in its place, said a lawyer for Ms Saberi, adding that it means she can leave Iran immediatly.
Her lawyers argued in their appeal that the espionage charge should be lifted because the Foreign Ministry and court had previously said that there was “no hostility between Iran and the United States”.
The US shouldn’t draw too much comfort from Iran’s decision, warned some analysts.
“They pushed her to the verge of a nervous breakdown for a transient political purpose”, said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “It shows the difficulty the Obama administration will have in negotiating with a regime that has so little value for the lives of its citizens.”