- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Iran on Monday freed an Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, from prison, removing an obstacle to improving U.S.-Iran relations but not guaranteeing progress, particularly before Iran’s June presidential election.

The Obama administration said Monday that it viewed the release as a purely “humanitarian gesture,” separate from its efforts to improve the long-troubled U.S.-Iranian relationship.

U.S. officials also said there had been “no deal-making” to secure Ms. Saberi’s freedom. Still, the officials did not rule out gestures toward Iran in the future.

Iran abruptly freed Ms. Saberi, a 32-year-old freelance reporter who has worked for National Public Radio and the BBC, reducing an eight-year sentence to a two-year suspended sentence. She was arrested in January, initially charged with buying a bottle of wine - illegal in the Islamic republic, but very common - and later charged with spying.

President Obama was “relieved” by the news, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was “heartened.”

“We know this has been a trying time for her family and friends, and he looks forward to welcoming her home to the United States,” Mr. Gibbs said. “We want to continue to stress that she was wrongly accused, but we welcome this humanitarian gesture.”

The wording of the Tehran court’s decision suggested that political considerations played a role.

Saleh Nikbakht, Ms. Saberi’s attorney, told the Associated Press that the court overturned the initial April 13 verdict, which convicted Ms. Saberi of aiding a “hostile state,” because the United States and Iran are not hostile toward each other.

The language left room for interpretation. However, given that the U.S. and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for three decades, an official court judgment declaring that the U.S. is not a hostile state could be significant.

U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the Obama administration views Ms. Saberi’s release as a “good, but not great” sign. The administration is waiting for Iran to agree to talks on its nuclear program, initially in company with Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, officials said. Once talks begin, they said, the U.S. can discuss steps to improve relations, such as freeing three Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials arrested in Iraq two years ago.

The U.S. is also considering other gestures, such as allowing routine contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats, contributing to Iranian counternarcotics efforts through the United Nations, asking Iran to allow humanitarian supplies for NATO in Afghanistan to move through Iranian ports and permitting direct flights between New York and Tehran.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, blamed the Saberi incident on powerful hard- liners who are “open in their contempt for the United States and for whom enmity toward the U.S. is a fundamental pillar of the Iranian Revolution.”

He said he was worried that the episode had already succeeded in setting back the potential for improved ties.

“Disillusionment has already set in, and the focus in recent weeks [in the U.S.] has turned back to potential coercive measures,” he said. “To an extent, [the hard-liners] achieved their goal.”

However, Iran is caught up in internal politicking over its June 12 presidential elections, which may be inhibiting a response to U.S. overtures.

Meanwhile, others less fortunate than Ms. Saberi are languishing in Iranian jails. Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran estimates that there are 400 to 500 other political prisoners “prosecuted based on similar trumped-up charges.”

Among them is 34-year-old Silva Harotonian. An Armenian-Iranian who worked at the Yerevan, Armenia, office of the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), a Washington-based humanitarian organization that coordinates professional exchanges around the world, she was arrested in June and sentenced to three years in prison in January, also for spying.

W. Robert Pearson, president of IREX, said the facts in both cases are “so similar that the same ruling ought to apply” and that Ms. Harotonian “should receive the same treatment.” Otherwise, the court “could give the impression that this was a political and not judicial decision,” he said.

Ms. Saberi is a dual U.S. and Iranian citizen. However, Ms. Harotonian, who is in the same prison where Ms. Saberi was held until Monday, is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, even though her mother is a naturalized American. That makes it difficult for the State Department to actively seek her release through official channels.

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