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Mystery Surrounds Iran’s Motives for Releasing Journalist

May 12, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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The day after the release of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi, who was jailed for months, analysts examine what Tehran's motives might be in ending the dispute over her case.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, Margaret Warner reports on Iran’s mysterious decisions to arrest and then release journalist Roxana Saberi.

MARGARET WARNER: A smiling Roxana Saberi greeted reporters in Tehran this morning, one day after being released from more than three months in the notorious Evin Prison.

ROXANA SABERI, journalist: I’m, of course, very happy to be free and to be with my parents again.

MARGARET WARNER: The 32-year-old reporter, a dual Iranian and American citizen, was arrested in late January for buying a bottle of wine, forbidden in the strictly Islamic Republic. She was eventually charged with and convicted of espionage.

After a secret court proceeding, she was sentenced to eight years in prison.

But yesterday, in what was called a gesture of Islamic mercy, an appeals court reduced her sentence to a suspended term of two years and allowed her to go free. Her conviction, however, remains intact.

Saberi’s release came after an international outcry and diplomatic pressure to free her, from the U.S. and others. Saberi thanked those supporters today.

ROXANA SABERI: And I want to thank all the people all over the world which I’m just finding out about, really, who, whether they knew me or not, helped me and my family during this period.

Saberi incident highlights tension

MARGARET WARNER: The Saberi incident came at an awkward time, as the Obama administration is attempting to engage Tehran on issues ranging from the situation in Afghanistan to how to curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Earlier this year, President Obama made a televised appeal to the nation's leaders and its people.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.

CLIFF KUPCHAN, Eurasia Group: It's a tough crowd. It's going to be a tough talk. If we didn't know it, we know it now.

MARGARET WARNER: Saberi's conviction and release has added fuel to the debate about the prospects for engaging Iran. Iran expert Cliff Kupchan is with the Eurasia Group.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: This affair reminds the Obama administration, reminds all of us that this is an unsavory government that we are working with.

Political infighting a factor?

MARGARET WARNER: Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said Obama's overture reactivated a power struggle between two factions in Iran's leadership.

TRITA PARSI, president, National Iranian American Council: She's given an eight-year sentence deliberately, apparently, to create obstacles and spoil the efforts to be able to pursue diplomacy between the two countries.

MARGARET WARNER: By whom?

TRITA PARSI: By radical elements inside the government who have benefited from the isolation Iran has found itself in and who fear that, in a diplomatic process, their level of power in the country will probably significantly reduce. That type of a change is not something they're ready for.

MARGARET WARNER: Then what happened?

TRITA PARSI: You have then elements in the leadership that are stronger, more unified now in favor of taking Obama up on his offer for diplomacy.

MARGARET WARNER: But Kupchan says it came all the way from the top.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: There is one person in Iran who makes fundamental decisions. That's the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He is especially known to have U.S.-Iran relations in his portfolio.

So I think it's a mistake to view this as a factional infighting. There was a guy in charge. He was calling the shots here.

In my view, he was trying to send a clear message, first, to chill the Obama diplomatic initiative, not to kill it, but to chill it. And there's a big difference. I think he wants to say, "This is going to evolve slowly, and it's going to evolve on our terms."

Secondly, I think he's telling Mr. Obama -- I think he's telling President Obama, quite clearly, not to bring up human rights, not to bring up domestic politics as the talks evolve.

Debate over Ahmadinejad's role

MARGARET WARNER: There's also a debate over what role President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election next month, played in Saberi's release. Last month, he sent a letter asking judicial authorities to let her defend herself fully on appeal.

TRITA PARSI: Many of his opponents have become bolder and bolder in criticizing his foreign policy record by pointing out that he is getting engaged in too much adventurism. And for that argument to be picking up pace within the Iranian debate and see then the Roxana case in the middle of it, that was a problem for him.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: Ahmadinejad played a very limited role. He called for due process for Ms. Saberi in what I believe was part of his attempt to tack towards the center as Election Day approaches.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don't think President Ahmadinejad played much of a role here in getting her release?

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think President Ahmadinejad was not instrumental in this affair, and I think his star is beginning to fade. It's early, but he's looking increasingly in trouble.

MARGARET WARNER: Whoever wins the election, Parsi thinks the resolution of the Saberi matter bodes well for the Obama administration's initiative.

TRITA PARSI: On the one hand, it says that the spoilers there are active and not giving up easily, and they have many different ways that they can create problems.

But on the other hand, it also shows that those who want to engage are stronger, more forceful than in the past, and they managed to turn this one around rather quickly.

So you have a situation that probably is moving in the right direction when it comes to this, because they have been able to deliver. And this is a critical question that both the United States and Iran is asking about the other right now: If they enter into a diplomatic process, will the other side be able to deliver?

Awaiting election results

MARGARET WARNER: Kupchan takes a different lesson.

CLIFF KUPCHAN: I think that the Iranian leadership as a generalization are very smart, shrewd and sophisticated people, well-educated and strategic in the way they think. They ruthlessly pursue what they perceive as their interests, and those interests don't often coincide with U.S. interests.

So we're up against a very shrewd opponent that doesn't think like we do and doesn't want many of the same things for their country and for the world that we do. That's a tough game.

MARGARET WARNER: As Saberi gets ready to leave Iran for her parents' home in North Dakota, Iran looks ahead to next month's election. And the Obama administration awaits the results so that, it hopes, serious negotiations can begin.