TEHRAN – In a sign that Iran’s government is loosening its grip on domestic security, several political prisoners, including a prominent human rights lawyer, were released Wednesday.
Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani reached out to the United States in a television interview with NBC News just days before he travels to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, praising U.S. President Barack Obama for taking a “positive” approach toward Tehran.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer who had been accused of insulting the Iranian government, was among those freed. Her husband, Reza Khandan, notified news agencies of Sotoudeh’s release and posted the news on his Facebook page.
Sotoudeh had been convicted of acting against national security and spreading propaganda against the government. She was serving a six-year sentence that began in 2010.
She has defended several well-known political activists in Iranian courts and is a member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, which was co-founded by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.
In all, 11 prisoners were freed Wednesday, including journalists and reformist politicians.
Among them was Mohsen Aminzadeh, a founding member of Iran’s main reformist political party and who had been convicted on charges similar to those against Sotoudeh in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election.
With Rouhani poised to travel to the United States, the prison releases appear to be part of broader plans by Iranian authorities to ease security restrictions in the country — one of Rouhani’s campaign promises.
Still unclear, however, is whether Wednesday’s releases will have any bearing on the fates of the two main leaders of the 2009 opposition movement, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest since 2011. The two were presidential candidates and had contested the validity of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
During his presidential campaign, Rouhani told the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat in June that “I will do my best to secure the release of those who have been incarcerated following the regrettable events of 2009,” although he noted that his powers were circumscribed. He also said he would try to “improve the present situation of Mr. Mousavi and Mr. Karroubi.”
In western Tehran on Wednesday night, the newly freed Sotoudeh was visited by a stream of friends and relatives.
“This is heroic leniency,” Sotoudeh said, borrowing a term used in a speech Tuesday by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The term is being interpreted as signaling a softened position by authorities on issues of national security and foreign policy.
In an interview, Sotoudeh pointed to the continuing incarceration of other political inmates, saying: “I expect all prisoners to be freed. Actually, I was expecting this process to be started earlier. I am happy, but I’m worried for my friends who are still in prison without having committed any crimes.”
Her husband agreed. “Those of us related to political prisoners have become a big family, and honestly I cannot be totally happy until they are all released,” he said.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States welcomed Wednesday’s news, adding, “We hope that one day all prisoners of conscience in Iran will be released.”
Analysts see the releases as a savvy move ahead of next week’s General Assembly session, indicating Rouhani intends to make good on campaign pledges — even on sensitive and highly charged issues. The move also suggests that Rouhani takes Iran’s international critics seriously, analysts said.
“The expectations from constituents that Rouhani would get prisoners released has understandably been huge, and he has tried to manage those expectations,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior lecturer in human rights studies at Lund University in Sweden who visits Iran regularly.
But for Sotoudeh, who spent three years behind bars, there is still work to be done.
“If this new approach that began last night continues, then I can say, yes, Rouhani is sending a message to the world and he is engaging, first with his own people and then with the rest of the world, and we will welcome this gesture,” she said.
In his interview with NBC News, Rouhani said Iran has never sought and will never seek a nuclear bomb, adding he has full authority to resolve a standoff with the West.
“Under no circumstances would we seek any weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, nor will we ever,” Rowhani said. “We have never pursued or sought a nuclear bomb, and we are not going to do so.”
Rowhani repeated Iran’s position that the clerical state — suffering from U.S.-led sanctions following sensitive uranium work — was solely “looking for peaceful nuclear technology.”