Circumstantial evidence suggests that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have provoked an incident involving the United States -- specifically, the recent jailing of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi -- in a twisted effort to promote a rapprochement with Washington.
After spending four months in an Iranian prison on espionage charges, Saberi was freed and left Iran on May 15. She is now recovering from the ordeal in Vienna. She announced upon her arrival in the Austrian capital that she would not immediately comment on her four months in Iranian custody.
Inside Iran, the case continues to be a source of conjecture. With the country's June 12 presidential election fast approaching, some see the whole Saberi episode as a stunt perpetrated by Ahmadinejad to give his reelection chances a boost. That notion is being pushed hardest by one of his presidential challengers, Mohsen Rezai. An Iranian news website with close ties to Rezai, Tabnak, published reports that strongly hinted that Ahmadinejad was striving to score a diplomatic coup that would help deflect the attention of the Iranian electorate away from the fact that his administration has made a mess of the country's economy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The PR coup that Ahmadinejad hoped to achieve was paving the way for US-Iranian rapprochement, Tabnak suggested. In an apparent attempt to lend credence to this scenario, the website reported that just days prior to Saberi's release from custody that "an assistant of [US Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton gave a letter to a deputy of [Iranian Foreign Minister) Manouchehr Motaki." The report did not specify the contents of the letter, but said it played a significant role in winning Saberi's release.
Another website, Shahabnews, which is controlled by moderate conservatives who tend to be disgruntled with Ahmadinejad's policies, reported that when state security agents searched Saberi's apartment, they found classified documents produced by the Center for Strategic Studies in Tehran, an outfit that operates under the auspices of the president's office. How Saberi obtained the documents remains unclear. She worked as an occasional translator for the Expediency Council, but it is unlikely that Saberi would have had access to such material there. Some experts have hinted that presidential operatives may have, in effect, planted the documents on her, or at least made it easy for her to gain access to them. Saberi and her lawyers did not dispute the reports that she possessed classified documents.
On May 19, Alireza Jamshidi, a spokesman for Iran's judiciary, said at a weekly news briefing that the person who had passed the classified material to Saberi had been identified, and that person would soon appear in court. Jamshidi did not identify the suspect, however, according to a report distributed by the Fars news agency.
Some Iranian experts suspect that the president's office had some sort of role in Saberi's arrest precisely because Ahmadinejad emerged as a high-profile advocate for her release. Prior to attending a UN anti-racism conference in Geneva in mid-April, Ahmadinejad issued a public call for clemency. And following bilateral talks, Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz recalled that "Ahmadinejad made it clear that the case was disagreeable to him."
The suspicion among many in Tehran is that Ahmadinejad was trying to gain Washington's favor by claiming credit for securing Saberi's freedom. And somehow Ahmadinejad hoped to parlay that favor into political capital that would help him on election day.
Even if such a scenario does not explain the motives behind the Saberi affair, there were irregularities surrounding her case that suggest it was the subject of an unusual degree of behind-the-scenes jockeying in Tehran.
According to an Iranian lawyer with inside knowledge on how the Iranian judiciary handles political or national security-related crimes, Saberi's case was from the start riddled with inconsistencies. "The whole thing was atypical of the way Iranian judiciary normally operates," the lawyer said. "The part of the legal system that deals with political offences may not be fair, or just in its conduct, but it is quite consistent procedure-wise."
The most glaring indicator of funny business surrounding the case was the fact that on April 14 a judiciary spokesman announced Saberi's trial would start in two weeks, or on April 28. However, five days later, the same spokesman stated that Saberi had already been convicted and sentenced to an eight-year prison term.
The lawyer also pointed out that Saberi was originally convicted under Article 508 of the criminal code, which covers collaboration "with a state at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran." But the Appeals Court ruling that enabled her to be set free was grounded in Article 505, which covers possession of "classified information for the purpose of passing it on to a hostile power." In addition, the Appeals Court decision to reduce Saberi's jail term to two years, and suspend the sentence, is widely considered unprecedented in its leniency.
Whatever the reason for Saberi's arrest and subsequent release, it seems highly unlikely that it was a straight case of espionage.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.