Iran Urged To Free Jailed U.S. Journalist

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on the Iranian government Thursday to release imprisoned freelance journalist Roxana Saberi. Speaking at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Clinton said Saberi should be allowed to return to the United States.

The American-born journalist from North Dakota was arrested in Tehran on Jan 31. It does not appear that she has been formally charged with any crime.

Saberi, 31, has lived in Iran for the past six years and has been a freelance reporter for NPR as well as ABC News, the BBC and other news organizations. The Iranian authorities revoked her press accreditation two years ago.

Ten days after she was arrested, Saberi was permitted to call her father in Fargo, N.D. After three weeks went by with no further news, her father, Reza Saberi, went public and gave an interview to NPR last Sunday.

There has since been considerable media coverage of Roxana Saberi's case. Earlier this week, the Iranian Foreign Ministry and judiciary formally acknowledged that she has been detained. Saberi is being held in Evin prison in Tehran.

Clinton Makes Appeal

Now the U.S. government has stepped in to apply pressure.

Clinton said the United States is working through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to find out as much information about Saberi as possible.

"We believe there is only one outcome to this matter, and that is for her to be released as soon as possible to return home to her family in North Dakota," Clinton said. "And we hope and expect that we will receive an affirmative response along those lines from the Iranian government."

In a case like this, there is always uncertainty about whether to try to resolve it quietly or to publicize it widely. Lee Hamilton, the director of the Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, advises going public.

"I think it's important to keep these cases as visible as we can and to let the world know that the Iranian government is holding someone unjustly," he said.

Hamilton was at the center of a similar case in 2006 when a scholar at the Wilson center, Haleh Esfandiari, and three other visiting Iranian-Americans were jailed in Tehran.

After consulting with Esfandiari's husband, Hamilton went public in a big way, contacting nongovernmental organizations in Tehran as well as scores of governments. He made sometimes quite sharp public statements.

Hamilton wrote to Iran's president as well as the speaker of the parliament and two former presidents. After months of work, he wrote directly to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"We made the case very simply that we were not asking for a fair trial," Hamilton said. "We were asking for her immediate release because she was doing absolutely nothing to undercut the Iranian state."

That seems to have been the turning point. Khamenei wrote back, and a few weeks later, in August 2007, Esfandiari and the others were released.

Echoes Of Another Arrest

There are similarities between the Esfandiari case and that of Saberi, but there also are key differences. Saberi has lived in Tehran for years, and it is not clear why her press card was revoked. She is not associated with a well-connected think tank such as the Wilson International Center.

Saberi's arrest comes at a sensitive time in U.S.-Iranian relations, as the Obama administration seeks ways to open a dialogue with Tehran.

Hamilton, a former congressman and co-chairman of both the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, advocates direct diplomatic talks with Iran. He has some advice for the Iranian government:

"If Iran wants better relations with the United States, the kinds of actions they are taking in detaining American citizens are counterproductive," he says. "And if they want respect from America, then they must show respect to America, and to its citizens."

So far, it appears that no one aside from her jailers has seen Saberi since her arrest more than a month ago.

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