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Next Steps Unclear for Jailed U.S. Journalist in Iran

April 20, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Iran's judiciary ordered an investigation Monday into the case of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who faces a prison sentence in Iran on espionage charges. Analysts and journalists, including NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, assess what may be next for Saberi.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on Roxana Saberi’s case, we turn to Vivian Schiller, the president and CEO of NPR; Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. In 2007, she was held in solitary confinement in Iran’s Evin Prison for more than 100 days. She and Mr. Sadjadpour hold dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship.

And welcome to you all.

Let me begin with you, Vivian Schiller. What is the latest on Roxana Saberi’s status and what conditions she’s being held?

VIVIAN SCHILLER, National Public Radio CEO: Well, her father was able to — both her parents, who have been in Tehran for the last few weeks and have said they are staying until they can take their daughter home, have seen her recently.

They said she is getting food, but she’s not eating, and they’re worried about both her mental and physical health. She has threatened a hunger strike; her parents are trying to talk her out of that. So we are quite concerned about her condition.

MARGARET WARNER: Tell us about her as a reporter. What kind of reports did she file? Was there anything that you think in retrospect could have made her a target?

VIVIAN SCHILLER: It’s hard to imagine that. She has been in Iran for over six years. She has been reporting. She’s done a lot of reporting for us, as well as for other news outlets, as you mentioned in the set-up piece, for the BBC.

And her pieces have ranged from just ordinary statements coming out of the president to stories about Islamic dress, about women being banned from men soccer games. In fact, her last report for us was just 48 hours before she was arrested, but it was a very run-of-the-mill story reporting on Ahmadinejad’s reaction to Obama’s overtures to Iran.

MARGARET WARNER: His New Year’s Day message.

VIVIAN SCHILLER: Yes. Actually, it was on January 28th when he had said we are willing to re-engage with Iran if they will unclench their fist.

Saberi worked cautiously in Iran

MARGARET WARNER: Kareem Sadjadpour, you know Roxana Saberi. What would you add about her as a person and as a journalist?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, I would agree with what Vivian said. And on a personal level, she's a very sweet person. She's a very accomplished person. She is a former accomplished pianist. She was a collegiate soccer player. She was a Miss America finalist.

And on a professional level, she was someone who was very cautious in Tehran. She was very respectful of the authorities. I remember when we would go to diplomatic gatherings, when the head scarf was no longer required, she would retain the head scarf...

MARGARET WARNER: Once she got in the party?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Once she got in the party, she would keep her head scarf on. She would refrain from drinking alcohol so as not to offend the sensibilities of Iranian authorities.

And her reporting itself comparatively was actually very, very cautious compared to other journalists based in Tehran. So needless to say, we were all very shocked when we heard about her imprisonment.

MARGARET WARNER: So why do you think she was targeted?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, my theory, Margaret, is that there's hard-line factions within Tehran who have a long history of provoking international crises to forward their domestic political agendas.

And whereas in the United States, in Washington, the Obama administration has reached a consensus that it's time to engage Iran, to try to forge a new relationship, I don't think a similar consensus has yet been reached in Tehran.

And I think, again, you have hard-line factions who believe they stand to lose both politically and financially if there is a warming of relations between the United States and Iran. And, again, they have a long history of trying to torpedo these efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Haleh Esfandiari, you've been, of course, in this situation. Extrapolating from your own experience, what is she going through right now? Tell us about the prison, what it's like to be a woman being held there? I know you were interrogated. I mean, what is it like?

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: I think she's in a very difficult position.

If I speak from my own experience, you can be interrogated sometimes eight to nine hours a day. You move around the prison blindfolded, led by a woman guard. And when you are interrogated, most of the time you are facing the wall so you are not supposed to see your interrogators.

So I think it must be very hard on her, because she's young and she probably never thought that she would be in prison.

Skepticism over Saberi's confession

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you were charged with -- well, you were never formally charged, but you were accused of something different, which was trying to help foment revolution, but she's accused of spying. But both are sort of crimes against the state.

What is the nature of the interrogation? What are they really after, a confession?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Sure, they're after a confession. And you really have to convince them that these charges are utterly nonsense, really, and that they are not true, you know, but they keep on repeating the same questions, trying to trick you.

And I just read what Mr. Saberi said, that Roxana was tricked into making a confession. And I believe she probably was tricked because she is young and she doesn't have the experience. You know, they try to intimidate every prisoner with pushing them to make a statement and promising them they release them. Apparently, this has been the case with Roxana.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Kareem Sadjadpour, what do you make of yesterday President Ahmadinejad suddenly surfacing after, what -- this has been going on now two-and-a-half months -- and calling for her rights to be respected on appeal. Then the chief of the judiciary today then followed that by saying, "Well, the case should be re-examined." What is going on?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I will add, Margaret, that I've spoken to several Iranian officials about Roxana's case. And I don't think anyone in Tehran believes themselves the charges they've leveled against her.

MARGARET WARNER: Really?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I don't think anyone within the regime believes she's guilty of espionage, absolutely. And, you know, with regard...

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me, but have they told you that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: A couple Iranian diplomats have told me this, that they don't believe the charges against her, no.

And with regards to President Ahmadinejad, he's kind of in a delicate position, because on one hand his most powerful clerical backers believe that it's one of the fundamental pillars of the revolution and one of the central identities of the Islamic republic to retain this adversarial relationship with the United States.

On the other hand, it's an election year. And two months from now, he's up for re-election, and he's presiding over a very young population, which is overwhelmingly in favor of a normalization of relations with the United States.

So I think we're going to continue to see these inconsistencies with Ahmadinejad. One week, he's going to denounce the United States. The next week, maybe he's going to send more favorable signals.

And I can see a scenario whereby Ahmadinejad comes out and pardons her to project this magnanimous image, as he did with the British sailors two years ago.

NPR lobbies for Saberi's freedom

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us what NPR is doing there in Tehran. Do you have somebody on the scene negotiating with the Iranian authorities, pressing her case?

VIVIAN SCHILLER: Well, we're doing what we think is the most effective thing we can be doing, which is to be reporting on the story constantly and consistently.

We have been in constant communication with Roxana's father. So on the news side, we think that just shining a light on the story, it's very newsworthy, but also is the best thing that we can possibly do for her.

Separate from the news side, we're also taking an advocacy position -- not in our newsroom, but myself and, along with other journalists and other news organizations, to make statements asking that the Iranian authorities at a minimum release her on bail and allow her to return to the United States with her parents.

And we are working, also, through our own contacts, through U.S. and Iranian government officials, to do what we can to seek information and to seek her release.

MARGARET WARNER: But at what level are you talking to the Iranian government?

VIVIAN SCHILLER: Well, we've been in contact with the U.N. -- or the Iranian U.N. ambassador to New York and through other channels, through the State Department and the White House.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what do you think it will take to win her release?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It's a difficult question. I would be very surprised, first of all, if she stays for the duration of her sentence, which is eight years. I can see far more likely she'd hopefully being released within the next several weeks or months.

But I think, if you talk to Iranian human rights activists, like the Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, what she recommends is a lot of public pressure from human rights groups, from the media, from civil society, but less pressure from governments, and especially the U.S. government, because if the U.S. government begins to issue demands and threats, the Iranian government probably is not going to want to compromise as a result, because they don't want to project weakness vis-a-vis the U.S. government. So it's a very difficult balance to maintain.

International pressure is key

MARGARET WARNER: And as an Iranian scholar yourself and you have deep knowledge of that society and government, what do you think it will take to get her released?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: A lot of international pressure. And I think, since the relations between the United States and Iran were, until the Saberi case, were slightly opening up, I would think that the United States government -- and there I disagree slightly with my friend, Kareem -- should continue talking about the subject, should continue -- and also the European governments.

The Iranians react to the pressure by the European governments. They should. They should constantly -- encountering Iranian diplomats, the first item on the agenda should be Roxana's case.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, in your particular case, it also took a letter from the head of the Wilson Center, Lee Hamilton, the former congressman, head of the Foreign Relations Committee, directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Do you think that he, in the end, will make this decision?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I think the ultimate decision is taken by him, not that he would say, "Free her, let her go," but just say, "Just resolve this situation."

And I think maybe a letter by Vivian or whoever Roxana was working currently for to a leader, you know, to Ayatollah Khamenei might help.

In my case, that was the turning point, you know, because Hamilton had written to President Ahmadinejad and also to the speaker of parliament, and he had not received any answer.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Thank you, all three, very much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Thank you.