- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

We received a desperate plea yesterday from inside Iran on behalf of Roxana Saberi, the 31-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted in Iran of espionage. Her fiance, award-winning Iranian-Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi, wrote, “It is with tears in my eyes that I say she is innocent and guiltless.” He maintains that Miss Saberi is the victim of political intrigue. She is not a spy, but a political pawn.

In this game of political chess, the Iranian government is maneuvering to trade Miss Saberi’s freedom for that of five Revolutionary Guards captured by U.S. forces while training insurgents in Iraq. On Saturday, Miss Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison. On Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stunned the world by sending a letter to the prosecutor in Tehran asking that she be given a fair chance to defend herself on appeal. Like clockwork, on Monday, Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, a sudden fan of due process, ordered a “quick and fair” appeal, which he said is “an undeniable right of the accused.”

On the same day, Mr. Ahmadinejad met with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz and called for the immediate release of the five members of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force (or “Iranian diplomats,” as he called them) captured by U.S. forces in Irbil, Iraq, in January 2007. Switzerland acts as the protecting power for American interests in Iran, making this a significant diplomatic signal. The implicit linkage between the two cases is obvious and a replay of an old gambit.

In May 2007, Iran seized four Iranian-Americans and held them for five months, a move widely believed at the time to be a tit-for-tat response to the Irbil takedown. The four Americans were released in September 2007 after President George W. Bush showed no inclination to negotiate an exchange. Perhaps the mullahs think President Obama will be more malleable.

Hassan Qashavi, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, denies any relationship between Miss Saberi’s imprisonment and the Quds detainees. We agree there is no linkage. The Quds Force detainees were part of the covert Iranian network arming and training Iraqi militants. This network is still active, and three more Quds Force members were apprehended by Iraqi forces in Diyala province last month.

Miss Saberi’s crime is writing a book, which her fiance says was “in praise of Iran.” She also was standing by her fiance, who himself had suffered at the hands of the regime. Tehran’s censors banned his acclaimed 2006 film “Half Moon” because of its favorable portrayal of Kurdish culture, and it was driven underground, becoming part of the black-market DVD trade. Mr. Ghobadi is worried about Miss Saberi’s health. He “heard she was depressed and cried all the time. She is very sensitive to the point she refuses to touch her food.” His appeal is desperate: “I beg you, let her go! I beg you not to throw her in the midst of your political games!” On her own merits, and before any more harm comes to her, Roxana Saberi should be freed.

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