Foreign Policy: How to understand the case of Roxana Saberi

Partner content from Foreign Policy

Roxana Saberi
Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP

With the announcement that Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi has been freed from prison in Iran will come many theories as to why she was released, and why she was imprisoned in the first place. It is worth noting that events often lack tidy explanations, and the initial motivations for Saberi's arrest may be quite different than the motivations for her subsequent conviction and release. Still, leaving aside the possibility of a non-public U.S.-Iran deal, the explanations for the Saberi affair generally fall into three categories:

1. Regime Politics. Some argue that Saberi's arrest was orchestrated by hardliners seeking to scuttle any hopes of a U.S-Iran rapprochement. In this theory, as the international outcry mounted, Iran's leadership came to see that the costs of continuing to hold Saberi were too much to bear, and the pro-engagement faction won her release. Advocates of this point of view will cite Iranian President Ahmadinejad's April 19 intervention on her behalf, and the exhortation by Iran's chief judicial official shortly thereafter to handle her case fairly.

In a sense, this is a best-case scenario, as it suggests that there is a real political struggle within the regime, and that those in favor of better relations with the United States are influential. The flaw in this line of argument, however, is primarily twofold. First, Iran has a long history of imprisoning journalists, including Americans, and those arrests do not appear to occur more frequently when ties between the United States and Iran are relatively warmer. Second, the sad fact is that despite the advocacy of Saberi's supporters and NGOs, Western governments appeared to put little real pressure on Iran to gain her release.

2. U.S.-Iran Negotiations. Another possibility is that Saberi's arrest and release were a tactical effort by the Iranian regime to create a crisis and then deliberately defuse it, in order to create the impression that they have made a concession for which they should be rewarded. This is not an uncommon tactic in international negotiations.

It is unknowable whether the Iranian regime had such considerations in mind when they imprisoned Saberi, but time will tell how the Obama administration responds. While there is nothing wrong with welcoming Saberi's release, the administration should continue to press Iran regarding its brazen violations of human rights, such as the imprisonment of journalists, and should not reward the regime merely for reversing such transgressions.

3. Business as Usual in Iran. Saberi's imprisonment, while grabbing headlines in the United States and around the world, was hardly an exceptional event in Iran. The Iranian regime routinely and arbitrarily arrests, imprisons, and sometimes executes those whom it deems a threat to its tight grip on Iranian society. Reporters Without Borders noted as of last month that seven reporters are jailed in Iran, which ranks 166th out of 173 countries with respect to press freedom. And it's not just journalists who are singled out for oppression: Iranian authorities have jailed human rights activists, advocates of women's rights, members of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Bahai, union leaders, and even AIDS doctors.

In this theory, Saberi's imprisonment was a warning to journalists ahead of Iran's presidential elections slated for early June. Some dismiss this notion by noting that Saberi's reporting was balanced, hardly making her a logical target for arrest; however, this makes the effect of her arrest all the more chilling, as it lets journalists know that none of them are safe. This is the same message that the regime sends to anyone in Iran who dares to stand up for the basic rights of the Iranian people, including the right to a free press. This is the worst-case scenario given its bleak implications for the Iranian people, but it is also unfortunately the one that seems most likely.

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