Journalist's Release Could Signal Shift in Iran Politics

The judicial reversal that led to the release of an Iranian-American from prison in Tehran could now offer hints of moderation by Iran's ruling Islamic clerics — making room for possible overtures by the Obama administration.

The release of Roxana Saberi may also seek to boost hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's goodwill credentials before next month's re-election challenge from reformers.

"It was certainly in the interest of Iran to close this case," said Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "No one wanted this to linger on."

Shortly after the journalist was detained in Iran in late January, President Barack Obama was busy sharpening his appeals for Tehran's leaders to "unclench their fist" and move toward greater dialogue with Washington.

Saberi's release — after an appeals court suspended her eight-year prison sentence on charges of being an American spy — ended a showdown that threatened to bring an abrupt halt to the overtures at thawing a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.

But it's far from the only detention drama that had complicated possible wider Iran-U.S. engagement.

Ahmadinejad made less-than-subtle comparisons between Saberi's appeals fight in Iran's courts and Tehran's demands for the freedom of three Iranians who have been detained in Iraq since a 2007 raid by U.S. forces.

Tehran claims the three are diplomats, but the U.S. military has raised possible links to Iran's Revolutionary Guard — the powerful military force under direct control of Iran's Islamic rulers. Saberi's release could increase pressure by Iran for Washington to free the detained Iranians or publicly substantiate the allegations.

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have pressed the Obama administration to demand answers from Iran about an ex-FBI agent who was last seen on Iran's Kish Island in 2007 as he investigated cigarette smuggling for a client of his private security firm.

But the timing of Saberi's release — a month before the June 12 national elections in Iran — suggests pragmatic objectives by Iran's rulers, some analysts say.

It appears to signal to Washington a sense of stability and willingness to move forward on possible exchanges after the elections — and perhaps seek ways to ease Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear program.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration insists that Saberi was wrongly accused, "but we welcome this humanitarian gesture."

The decision also gives Ahmadinejad a chance to soften his image before facing reformist challengers at the polls.

Ahmadinejad's direct sway of judicial affairs is extremely limited, but his supporters in the ruling establishment hold that power. Saberi's release handed Ahmadinejad a key opportunity to appear merciful and in tune with the ruling elite.

Last month, Ahmadinejad urged Tehran's chief prosecutor to ensure Saberi be allowed a full defense during her appeal.

"Ahmadinejad perhaps sensed that the appeal might go in Saberi's favor because of the intense international pressure," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a researcher in Iranian affairs at Syracuse University. "He's learned well how to take advantage of political opportunities. This could work in his favor in the elections."

Ahmadinejad faces two reformist candidates in his bid for a second four-year term, but neither of the challengers appear to have yet tapped into the crucial youth vote that carried former President Mohammad Khatami.

"The regime has a great deal to gain at the moment by appearing moderate," said Ilan Berman, an Iranian affairs specialist at the American Foreign Policy Council.

He believes Iran's leaders worried that a prolonged dispute over Saberi could backfire by widening the divide with moderate Iranians who favor some level of dialogue with Washington.

"The thing the regime most worries about — even more than being taken to task by the West over nuclear development — is any political decision that exposes the very deep fault line between the people and the regime," Berman said. "The Saberi case was beginning to look very counterproductive for them and it was time to end it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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