Tehran’s sentencing of Roxana Saberi to eight years of prison for spying has shocked people inside and outside the country. At a time when President Barack Obama is seeking a dialogue with Tehran, what kind of a signal does Roxana’s sentencing send, especially given that the trial failed to meet the basic standards set by international conventions to which Iran is party?
According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), the Iranian authorities didn’t even disclose the laws she allegedly violated, nor did they announce under what article of the law she was indicted.
Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who has been living in Iran since 2003, was first arrested in January. She was accused of buying wine. The allegation was later changed to engaging in illegal activities by continuing to report after her press credentials were revoked in 2006. Then, during her closed-door trail on April 13, 2009, the authorities changed the charge once again. Now she was accused of spying for the US government.
As Hadi Ghaemi of ICHRI has pointed out, “to arrest Saberi for buying wine and suddenly uncover evidence a week before her trial that she was spying for the United States government lacks credibility.”
So why is this happening to Saberi? Most analyst agree that she has become a pawn in the political games between the US and Iran, though the explanations for Tehran’s actions differ.
One theory reads that both Saberi and Esha Momeni, another Iranian American who was arrested in 2008, will be used as leverage with the US in a future negotiation, possibly to exchange for two Iranian nationals taken by US forces in a 2007 raid of the Iranian consulate in Irbil, Iraq. Tehran maintains that the two Iranians are diplomats. The Bush administration said that they were Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps agents. (US forces arrested five Iranians – three of them have been released, but two of them remain in US custody.)
Some have speculated that the case is an effort by hardliners in the Iranian Judiciary who seek to undermine US-Iran negotiations. This would fit an old pattern in which Iranian hardliners often used their influence in the Judiciary or the Intelligence ministry to create roadblocks for any US-Iran diplomacy. President Ahmadinejad’s public comments that Saberi should be given the opportunity to appeal her case, may support this theory. But it’s election season in Iran and Ahmadinejad’s comments may also be an effort to boost his popularity with the voters by seeking to eliminate roadblocks to improved US-Iran relations (US-Iran rapprochement enjoys strong support among the Iranian populace).
Alternatively, the Saberi arrest and sentencing may be an effort to sustain the elevated security environment in Iran. The Iranian authorities used tensions with the US, as well as the Bush administration’s extensive threats of bombing Iran, to create a heightened security environment in the country to clamp down on internal dissent and deter human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists from challenging the government.
The Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, and the President’s extensive efforts to change the atmospherics between the two countries – particularly the signal that problems between the US and Iran cannot be resolved through threats and his consistent reference to the Islamic Republic – have largely deprived the Iranian government of the pretext of a perceived US threat.
Saberi’s case may be an effort to retain elements of that atmosphere and signal the population that even though the US and Iran may have a dialogue soon, no one should think that regime’s internal red lines can be questioned and challenged now. Though most human rights defenders agree that a US-Iran rapprochement will in the long run be very beneficial for the human rights situation in Iran (Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, favors talks on these grounds, for instance), there are signs that a lowering of US-Iran tensions may create a short-term backlash against pro-democracy and human rights forces in the country.
But the motivation of the Iranian authorities may also be of a completely different nature. Tehran has signaled that there is a general consensus among the many power factions in Iran that a dialogue with Washington should be pursued. One of the hesitations that exist, however, is whether President Obama has the ability to deliver and the resolve to stand up against the many forces in Washington – domestic and otherwise – that oppose a US-Iran rapprochement.
Entering into a diplomatic process that fails, many in Tehran fear, would strengthen the case for international sanctions against Iran – as well as potential military action. Just as much as Washington has its many legitimate concerns about Iran’s sincerity and ability to come to an agreement with the US in spite of its anti-American ideology, Tehran has its concerns about Washington’s – not just President Obama’s – intentions and ability to come to terms with the Iranian government.
In his reaction to Obama’s Norooz message, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hinted of Iran’s hesitations. Insisting that “Changes in words are not adequate,” Khamenei asked: “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for America, the president, the congress, behind the scene elements?”
Saberi’s case may be aimed at testing President Obama and his resolve at the earliest possible stage. Will the president continue to push for a dialogue in spite of the backlash from anti-dialogue forces in Washington – and will he prevail?
These potential explanations for Tehran’s actions may not be mutually exclusive. Similarly, none of them may be valid either – outside speculation about Tehran’s motives may once more be off the mark. But mindful of the Iranian Judiciary’s handling of the case, the least credible explanation is that Saberi is a spy.
Trita Parsi is president and co- founder of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States.” First published in .