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What's Next For Iranian-American Journalist Roxana Saberi?

Roxana Saberi, undated
Roxana Saberi, undated
Iranian politics are opaque and complicated and it's often difficult to predict future political developments.

The same can be said of Roxana Saberi's case. The Iranian-American journalist's arrest and conviction in Iran on charges of espionage came as a surprise. And the future of her case could be surprising.

Saberi's father told RFE/RL's Radio Farda after visiting his daughter in prison on April 27 that she went on hunger strike to protest her conviction and eight-year prison sentence.

Reza Saberi said his daughter, who is only drinking sugared water, is determined to continue her strike until she's freed. "Her hands were shaking while she was standing, it was clear that she has no strength left," he said. "Psychologically she's fine, but physically she's weak because she hasn't been eating."

While there is a chance the hunger strike could lead officials to reexamine Saberi's case more quickly, analysts say a number of other factors would play the determining role in her release.

"It depends on political dealings, it depends on the will of those who have detained her," says Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University who has been following the case closely. "It depends on the future of U.S.-Iran relations and many other parameters that will play a role in her case."

Political Pawn

Saberi, who was freelancing for the U.S. National Public Radio (NPR) and several other Western media outlets, has been in jail in Iran since January 31. She was originally detained for possessing a bottle of alcohol -- a crime in the Islamic republic. Later, authorities said her press accreditation had expired and later still she was charged with espionage.

Saberi's father has claimed the Iranian authorities tricked his daughter into making a false confession and promised her that she'd be released. Saberi reportedly made an unspecified confession, but her release never came. Instead she was sentenced to eight years in prison after being convicted of espionage.

Reza Saberi and his wife Akiko at their house in Tehran
Saberi's lawyer, Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, has filed an appeal and says he expects the case to be sent to a higher court this week.

The United States, international human rights groups, and several individuals familiar with the 32-year-old Saberi and her work have rejected the charges against her as groundless.

For many observers, Roxana Saberi has become a victim of the contentious relations between Tehran and Washington. Some have described her as a political pawn used by the Iranian hard-liners to sabotage U.S. President Barack Obama's efforts toward engagement with Iran.

Others speculate that she's been held hostage by the Iranian establishment for use as a bargaining chip in any future talks with the United States.

Similar Pattern To Cases

Many compare her case with those of several other Iranian-Americans who have run afoul of the Iranian authorities. Scholar Haleh Esfandiari is among those who were detained in Iran on serious security charges, only to be released and allowed to leave the country.

Such cases are commonly believed to be based on forced confessions, and evidence to support the official Iranian charges are not made public.

Saberi's one-day trial was held behind closed doors and so far judiciary officials have followed the pattern by not releasing any evidence of her alleged spying activities.

Issa Saharkhiz, a prominent Tehran-based journalist, expects Saberi's case to continue to follow that pattern -- and end just as the previous cases of other jailed Iranian-Americans did.

Saharkhiz says the Iranian hard-liners who are usually opposed to ties with the United States see Saberi as a "winning card' in their possible future dealings with the United States. He is confident that Saberi will be released in the near future.

"Maybe it would have been better if, instead of going on a hunger strike, she would have looked at the similar cases. Some charges are leveled -- it starts with small issues and ends in overthrow or espionage charges. But all of these result in the release of the accused while the case remains open for the future," Saharkhiz says.

We saw that, not only in the case of Iranian citizens but British sailors were also detained by Iran, turn into a big issue [only to see them] later released."

Saberi's lawyer has said that he expects her prison sentence to be reduced.

Rough Start To New Beginning

Professor Zibakalam, who has issued an open letter in support of Saberi, also does not expect Saberi to spend the full eight years in prison in the Islamic republic. But he says that he doesn't expect her to be released "tomorrow" either.

"Those who have detained her and came to the conclusion to put her on trial and charge her with espionage have enough power and influence not to let her go so easily and so quickly," he says. "Maybe the interference of [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad in the case could be [helpful]. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the appeal court would acquit her."

President Ahmadinejad and judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi have called for a fair appeal in the case.

Iranian-Americans Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Azima were detained in Iran in 2007.
While other Iranian-Americans detained in Iran in recent years were sometimes held for months on solitary confinement, none of them was sentenced to prison.

The verdict against Saberi comes less than a month after U.S. President Obama sent a video message to the Iranian leadership and people and called for a new beginning in relations between the two countries.

Gary Sick, a professor of Middle East politics at New York's Columbia University, says the Saberi case makes U.S. engagement strategy with Iran more difficult.

"The Obama administration has made very effort to -- as they say -- extend a hand to Iran and Iran continues to behave the way it has in the past," Sick says.

"I hope that this sort of knee-jerk reaction by them to arrest anybody who is in anyway involved in trying to build bridges between our two societies that that process will soon be recognized as pointless and counterproductive and they'll stop doing it," he adds.

Meanwhile, four members of the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders who went on hunger strike on April 28 in support of Saberi have said she needs to know that she is not alone and that they can carry on her protest while she takes a break.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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