Tragedy often results when individual lives are caught up in great power politics. When state interests are placed on the scale, individuals are invariably overwhelmed — at best they are pawns in bigger games. It is not yet clear how journalist Roxana Saberi fits into the larger mosaic of U.S.-Iran relations, but her release from an eight-year sentence and arrival back in the United States are a welcome signal of moderation and a potential overture from Tehran to Washington. We urge both sides to use this opening to build a better relationship.
Ms. Saberi, whose father is Iranian and whose mother is Japanese, was born and raised in the United States. She is a U.S. citizen, but also holds an Iranian passport. She has worked in Iran as a freelance journalist since 2003; her press card was revoked in 2006 without explanation, but she remained in the country. She was arrested in January, initially on charges of buying a bottle of wine, which is prohibited in Iran. That charge was upped to espionage by the time she appeared before the tribunal, three months later. She was found guilty in a trial that reportedly lasted less than an hour and sentenced to eight years in prison, the harshest term ever given by an Iranian court to a dual national on security charges.
U.S. officials protested the decision and Ms. Saberi’s attorney filed an appeal. That is when things got interesting. Several Iranian leaders called for a rehearing, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad among them.
The intervention seems to have had an impact. Iran’s appeal court heard the case this month and reversed the lower court decision. After reducing the charges from espionage to “possessing classified information,” the court modified her sentence to a two-year suspended term, freeing her from prison and barring her from working as a reporter in Iran for five years. We applaud her release. No journalist should be imprisoned for merely doing his or her job.
What should we make of this case and its curious resolution? One interpretation suggests that Ms. Saberi’s arrest and subsequent release are evidence of a split in Iranian politics. According to this theory, hardliners had the journalist arrested in an attempt to kill any hopes of a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran. U.S. President Barack Obama has reached out to Iran since taking office, sending a message to the Iranian people at the Persian New Year and agreeing to join multilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear program. There have been diplomatic contacts between the two countries as well. U.S. officials like this theory — especially because it suggests there are ascendant groups in Tehran that favor ending the three decades of hostility. Supporters of this theory point to the court’s ruling, which noted that the Foreign Ministry had said there was “no hostility between Iran and the U.S.”
A variant of this theory suggests that Ms. Saberi was arrested and released to create and resolve a crisis between the two countries, the resolution of which would open the door to improved relations. Another twist argues that releasing Ms. Saberi gives Tehran a boost in negotiations with the U.S., permitting it to claim that it has already made a concession to the U.S. and it is now Washington’s turn.
Yet another theory suggests that Mr. Ahmadinejad is positioning himself for elections that will be held next month. Mr Ahmadinejad, no great admirer of the U.S., wrote a letter to the court, urging it to be fair as it reconsidered the case. That letter marked the first time he had intervened in a court case during his four years in office. By this logic, Mr. Ahmadinejad sees improved relations with the U.S. as a boost. Given the many other failures of his term in office — the economy is sputtering, inflation is officially listed at 25 percent (and thought to be higher) and unemployment has topped 12.5 percent — progress with Washington would help his re-election prospects. In fact, however, he faces no real challengers, so this hypothesis seems questionable.
A more dispiriting assessment concludes that this is just business as usual. Tehran routinely arrests journalists, human rights advocates, members of minority groups, and others: Ms. Saberi was the latest of the regime’s victims. Arresting Ms. Saberi was a warning to other journalists in the runup to the June ballot. Releasing her before the vote ensured that her arrest would not dominate international coverage of that election.
In truth, we will not know what motivated Tehran to act as it did. That does not mean that we should ignore opportunities that arise if the more optimistic assessments are correct. The U.S., along with other governments, should applaud the humanitarian impulses behind Ms. Saberi’s release and reach out to Tehran to test its intentions. That does not mean making concessions that would be regretted if this is a tactical move. It does call for exploring areas of common interest and concern and finding common ground. This could reduce the suspicion that dominates Tehran’s relations with the rest of the world.
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