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Why Was Roxana Saberi Freed From A Tehran Prison?

Roxana Saberi with her father, Reza Saberi (left), shortly after her release.
Roxana Saberi with her father, Reza Saberi (left), shortly after her release.
The release of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi from Tehran's infamous Evin prison has been welcomed by rights groups and Western governments, including U.S. President Barack Obama, who called it a "humanitarian gesture."

Yet many questions remain about how Saberi's initial detention on a relatively minor charge evolved into a conviction for espionage and an eight-year prison sentence.

While analysts might not agree on the reasons behind Iran's decision to free Saberi, there is broad agreement that the case was politically motivated.

The rapid escalation of the charges against the 32-year-old journalist, followed by a fast-track appeals process that resulted in a lesser sentence, hint at the political nature behind the case.

The initial charges leveled against Saberi in late January related to the purchase of a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. Those charges quickly widened into charges of spying for the United States, which in turn resulted in a guilty verdict and an eight-year prison sentence handed down by a revolutionary court.

Finally, amid international outcry over Saberi's imprisonment, an appeals court ruled on the case within 24 hours of hearing it, resulting in a two-year suspended sentence that leaves Saberi free to leave the country.

Influence Of Politics

For prominent journalist Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin, a spokesman for Iran's Association for Press Freedom, the Saberi case is a prime example of the influence of politics on Iran's judiciary.

"Once more, Iran's judiciary has proved that it issues its sentences under the influence of political developments," Shamsolvaezin says. "And that under the influence of political issues -- domestic and international -- it quashes sentences it has issued."

Saberi working in Tehran in 2003.
Saberi's imprisonment was seen by some as an attempt by Iran's hard-liners to sabotage Obama's offer of engagement with the Islamic republic.

If that is, in fact, the case, they appear to have achieved their goal to a certain degree, considering that some within the U.S. political scene cited Saberi's imprisonment as evidence that Iran is not a reliable negotiating partner and that engagement is a waste of time.

Even U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained on April 30 about the "mixed responses" received from Iran over the fate of Saberi, adding, "I think it shows how difficult it is to deal with this government in Iran."

On the other hand, Saberi's release on May 11 -- just one day after the appeals court hearing in Tehran -- could suggest that the more moderate and pragmatic faction of the Iranian establishment has gained the upper hand.

'Opened The Door'

Tehran-based journalist Iraj Jamshidi tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that by freeing Saberi, Iran is giving a green light to the United States.

"The [fact that the] appeals court took place very quickly and issued its verdict within 24 hours could be interpreted as an indication of the Islamic republic's interest to open serious negotiations with the United States," Jamshidi says. "It seems that Iranian leaders may have opted not to move toward [further] tensions in ties with the U.S. and opened the door for talks."

It seems that Iranian leaders may have opted not to move toward [further] tensions in ties with the U.S. and opened the door for talks.
Some speculated that Saberi was effectively being used by the Iranian establishment as a "soft hostage" who could be used as a bargaining chip in dealings with the United States over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and other issues. There was also speculation that Iran sought to use Saberi to ensure the release of some of its own citizens in detention of the United States.

Adding to the rumors that the United States and Iran were engaged in deal-making, the Iranian daily "Sarmayeh" reported on May 12 that Iran and the United States may have discussed the Saberi case during last month's Tokyo donors conference for Pakistan. Both the U.S. special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki attended the one-day conference on April 17.

An unidentified senior U.S. State Department adamantly rebuffed such suggestions, telling news agencies on May 11 that "there was no deal-making, no back channel" that led to the release of Saberi, who had been living in Iran for the past six years.

'Wanted To Make A Deal'

Yet some analysts, including Shamsolvaezin, still suggest that behind-the-scenes negotiations between Tehran and Washington could have aided Saberi's case.

"It appears to me that they wanted to make a deal," Shamsolvaezin says. "I don't know whether it happened or not."

The entrance to the Tehran apartment of Saberi's parents is decorated with ribbons and flowers in preparation for her arrival on May 11.
The release of Saberi ahead of Iran's presidential election in June is being interpreted by some as a campaign move by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Last month, amid international outcry over the Saberi case, Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the judiciary calling for her fair treatment.

Considering that Ahmadinejad is seeking reelection, Saberi's release may be perceived by Iranian voters as a goodwill gesture by Ahmadinejad -- one that removed a formidable obstacle to improved ties with the United States. With Iranians showing openness to better relations with the United States, the move could bring Ahmadinejad some votes.

On May 12, the conservative daily "Jomhuri Eslami" called Saberi "an American spy" and suggested that "political circles" in Iran believe that the suspended sentence she received does not fit the charge of espionage leveled against her by Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

But the daily, which is reputed to reflect the views of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, also noted that Saberi's father said the efforts of the Iranian president were "instrumental" in the resolution of his daughter's case.

A final theory making the rounds among Iranians is that Saberi's dual Iranian-American citizenship aided in her release. Technically, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, considering all Iranians as solely Iranian citizens. But Iranian bloggers have noted that Saberi was nevertheless freed relatively quickly despite the heavy charge she faced, while a number of students, teachers, workers, and journalists remain jailed on similar charges.

One blogger said he wished all Iranians had dual Iranian-American nationalities so that they, too, could benefit from their president's "boundless sea of kindness."

Radio Farda broadcaster Mohammad Zarghami contributed to this report
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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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