Iran's unexpected release on September 18 of about a dozen political prisoners, among them prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh
, is being seen as the first tangible sign of change in the country since the July election of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani as president.
Rohani, who was inaugurated on August 4, campaigned on a platform of moderation and promised to release political prisoners as well as give Iranians more rights.
Because of the timing of the prisoner release -- one week before the start of the United Nations General Assembly meeting, where Rohani is expected to deliver a speech and engage in diplomatic outreach -- some analysts have interpreted the move as an effort by Tehran to improve the country's image before its appearance on the world stage.
Others, however, believe the sudden freeing of prominent political and human rights figures is more than just a symbolic gesture or attempt to stave off criticism of Iran's rights record.
The release came the day after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for "heroic flexibility" in diplomacy
-- comments interpreted to be a reference to Iran's relations with the United States and other countries who suspect it of trying to develop nuclear weapons.
Taken together, former reformist lawmaker Ali Mazrouei says this could be the start of a shift in Iran toward more moderate domestic policies. "This is the heroic flexibility that has started. If Iran is moving toward decreasing tensions internationally, then the priority should be on the domestic front," he says. "I believe a blessed path has begun, which we hope will lead to the release of all political prisoners and bring some calm to society. This will be effective in pushing forward the plans to reduce tensions with the outside world."
Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, believes Khamenei has given Rohani and his team the green light to work on Iran's foreign relationships; namely, to try and resolve the nuclear issue, as well as to slightly relax the atmosphere inside the country.
"The question of political prisoners has been a long-standing grievance in Iran among large numbers of people," Hashemi says. "I think there is an attempt here to allow Rohani to live up to some of his campaign promises to stabilize a domestic situation that is getting increasingly worse due to economic pressure that is coming from abroad."
Testing The Waters?
The release of Sotoudeh and the other prisoners was welcomed by rights groups and Iranian citizens, many of whom used social-media sites to express their joy. Some left messages on the Facebook page of Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, who broke the news of her release.
Hadi Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, called for the release of all political prisoners in Iran, and specifically named opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, all of whom are under house arrest.
Reports have surfaced recently that Iran's Supreme National Security Council might be preparing to reevaluate the status of the three opposition leaders, who were confined in February 2011.
Hashemi says the three leaders' case is highly sensitive because of concerns that their release could be risky for the Islamic republic
"Many of the hard-line supporters of the regime have been claiming that the Green [Movement] leaders are agents and allies of external powers trying to overthrow the Islamic republic," he says. "To release the Green leaders means that those elements within the Iranian political establishment will be deeply embarrassed. But at the same time, there is a lot of internal public pressure to have the Green leaders released. So it seems to be that the regime is trying to reassess the status of the arrest of the Green leaders, and perhaps it's using the release of prisoners today to test the waters."
Change In The Air
A Tehran-based journalist who did not want to be identified says the prisoner release appears to be part of a general trend toward more moderation.
"There is a new palpable atmosphere and there's a feeling that journalists shouldn't be feeling as worried as before when doing their job," the journalist says. "You see the picture of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami on the front page of newspapers -- that's change."
There have been other reported changes, including that some students who were previously banned from attending university classes have been given permission to resume their studies.
But analysts like Ghaemi say many more things must change, especially the regime's abusive human rights practices and repressive censorship policies, before Iran will be seen as a moderate country.
The government should show "heroic flexibility" not just abroad, but also at home, he says.