12 May 2009

Iran: the Roxana Saberi case

Two overwhelming impressions flow from the case of Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist who has just been released from Tehran’s Evin prison after a successful appeal against her eight year prison sentence on espionage charges:

- There are powerful forces in the Iranian system (possibly in the judiciary itself) that would like to impede any prospect of a productive Iranian response to President Obama’s overtures at the time of the Persian New Year, and

- There are even more powerful forces that do not want any such impediment in the way of exploring the possibilities opened up by these overtures.

There can be little doubt that Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who has lived in Tehran since 2003, was the victim of a tussle between those who would like to normalise relationships with the United States and those who are opposed to this. Originally arrested on a charge of buying a bottle of wine, she found herself facing upgraded charges of working without the necessary press credential (her press card had been revoked in 2006) and espionage. After a brief trial conducted behind closed doors, she was found guilty and convicted.

This was followed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad writing to the appeals court to urge that Ms Saberi be treated fairly – the first time since he took office that he has ever intervened in a case before the courts. It is a sign that Mr Ahmadinejad sees political advantage for himself in the 12 June elections in presenting himself as someone who is prepared to explore the possibilities of rapprochement with the new U.S. Administration, and no doubt it also reflects the cautious pragmatism of the Supreme Leader himself as outlined in Reading Khamene'i in Tehran.

It is to be hoped that the Obama Administration can capitalise on this sign that there is a real opportunity to make progress. The Americans will never get another opportunity like the one that they had in 2003, shortly after George W. Bush had declared “Mission Accomplished” on board the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May. With the Americans on either side of them in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Iranians were sufficiently concerned about regime survival for the moderate Khatami regime to take a major diplomatic initiative. Through the good offices of the Swiss Ambassador in Tehran, Tim Guldimann, who represented U.S. interests in Iran, the Iranians sent a written proposal to Washington in which they offered to put everything on the table for negotiation: their support for Hezbollah, the Israel- Palestine issue and their support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and their nuclear program. This document said what they wanted from the United States and what they were prepared to offer in return.

Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage favoured a positive response, as did National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and they approached the President about it. In the full hubris of the time, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld killed it stone dead. “We don’t speak to evil", they said. That was the end of that, and for good measure they shot the messenger: Ambassador Guldimann was rebuked by the Americans for having acted beyond his mandate.

Not only was the Iranian intitiative killed stone dead: the episode destroyed the careers of some of the people who had instigated it, and in due course helped to get Mr Ahmadinejad across the line, as did the casual vandalism of the “Axis of Evil” speech.

Times have moved on, and having helped the Iranians to reach their preferred position of being the political giant in the Middle East, the United States is now bargaining from a much weaker position than it would have been in 2003. Paradoxically, that might help to set up a more productive engagement. Let us hope so.

Principal sources:

(1) New York Time news reports of 11 May 2009 and 18 April 2009.

(2) Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The secret dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.,

Yale University Press, 2007.

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