Why Is Ahmadinejad Helping Journalist Roxana Saberi?

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Roxana Saberi

In a surprising gesture of white knighthood, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to the aid of Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist detained in a Tehran prison on spying charges. Known more for being a regular sparring partner with the United States, Ahmadinejad made a rare intervention into Saberi's case on Sunday by declaring that she should have the legal right to defend herself.

Also on Sunday, President Obama called for Saberi's release. "I am gravely concerned with her safety and well-being," Obama said at the Summit of the Americas. "We are working to make sure that she is properly treated and to get more information about the disposition of her case. She is an American citizen and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage." (See pictures of the enduring influence of Ayatullah Khomeini.)

The Iranian President's statement opens the possibility that the appeals court will show Saberi some leniency when it reviews her conviction (the date has not yet been determined). Originally arrested three months ago for purchasing a bottle of wine — possession of alcohol is illegal in the Islamic Republic — Saberi was later charged with espionage, then quickly tried, found guilty and, on Saturday, sentenced to eight years in prison. But because Iranian appeals courts review both matters of law and fact (they are more like a retrial than an American-style appeals system), the appeals court could reduce or overturn Saberi's sentence on procedural grounds, charge her with lesser offenses, or even declare her not guilty. (See pictures of Ahmadinejad's visit to New York in 2007.)

But even if recent events bode well for Saberi, and if Ahmadinejad's intervention in a judicial matter appears to be a diplomatic overture to the U.S., the entire episode still dampens hopes raised by the Obama Administration that Iran and America might resolve 30 years of disputes and restore diplomatic relations.

Of course, it's not just the sentencing of a journalist to eight years in prison that strikes many American observers as inherently unfair. It's hard to imagine someone with a less mysterious resume than Saberi. Before working for NPR, the BBC and various American broadcast television stations, she was a beauty queen from North Dakota and a former Miss America contestant. A woman with bikini photos of herself on the Internet is an unlikely choice for the CIA to send on covert operations to a conservative Islamic country where women have to wear head scarves in public. (See pictures of the health care system in Tehran.)

Still, practices that would be standard for freelance journalists working in other countries, such as meeting with foreign officials and exiled dissidents, or working freelance for nongovernmental organizations, could be considered illegal by Iranian standards, by which Saberi — as an Iranian dual national — would be subject. If the Iranian government has solid evidence of wrongdoing on Saberi's part, however, they haven't made it public.

In the absence of details of the charges against Saberi, Ahmadinejad's intervention makes it seem even more likely that the charges are inherently political in nature. At the time of her arrest, the American press speculated that she could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the U.S., or that she would be traded in exchange for Iranian diplomats detained by the U.S. in Iraq, or that her arrest was the work of elements in the Iranian government determined to derail détente between Iran and the U.S.

To a certain extent the tactic has been successful. Both U.S. Senators from North Dakota, where Saberi grew up, have vowed to work tirelessly for her release. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama himself have mentioned Saberi when speaking about Iran and have also called for her release. The tragedy of an individual American has suddenly found a place on a negotiating agenda crowded with issues of global significance, such as Iran's nuclear development program and its support of anti-Israeli militant groups. Meanwhile, the conservative faction in the United States — as voiced on the Wall Street Journal opinion page — has already used the Saberi case as a cautionary tale for what happens when the U.S. tries to engage with Iran.

Indeed, the attention paid to Roxana Saberi has elevated her value that much more. Ahmadinejad may yet play the good cop and spring Saberi, and his intervention may be a real sign that he is ready to talk to Obama, but if the arrest of one Miss North Dakota can sidetrack international diplomacy, then dealing with Tehran is not going to be cheap or easy.

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