• 20 April 2009
  • Posted By Trita Parsi
  • Diplomacy, Human Rights in Iran, Iran Election 2009

Why Roxana?

cross posted from HuffingtonPost:

Tehran’s sentencing of Roxana Saberi to eight years of prison for spying has shocked people inside and outside the country. At a time when President Barack Obama is seeking a dialogue with Tehran, what kind of a signal does Roxana’s sentencing send, particularly since Iran didn’t live up to the standards of justice it has obligated itself to per the many conventions Iran is a party to?

According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), the Iranian authorities didn’t even disclose the laws she allegedly violated, nor did they announce under what article of the law she is indicted.

Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist who has been living in Iran since 2003, was first arrested in January. She was charged with the crime of buying wine. The charge was later changed to engaging in illegal activities by continuing to report after her press credentials were revoked in 2006. Then, on April 13, 2009, the authorities changed the charge once more during her one-day trial behind the scenes. Now she was accused of spying for the US government.

As Hadi Ghaemi of ICHRI has pointed out, “to arrest Saberi for buying wine and suddenly uncover evidence a week before her trial that she was spying for the United States government lacks credibility.”

So why is this happening to Saberi? Most analyst agree that she has become a pawn in the political games between the US and Iran, though the explanations for Tehran’s actions differ.

One theory reads that both Saberi and Esha Momeni, another Iranian American who was arrested in 2008, will be used as leverage with the US in a future negotiation, possibly to exchange for two Iranian nationals taken by US forces in a raid of the Iranian consulate in Irbil, Iraq, back in 2007. Tehran maintains that the two Iranians are diplomats. The Bush administration said that they were Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps agents. (Originally, US forces arrested five Iranians – three of them have been released, but two of them remain in US custody.)

Some have speculated that the case is an effort by hardliners in the Iranian Judiciary who seek to undermine US-Iran negotiations. This would fit an old pattern in which Iranian hardliners often used their influence in the Judiciary or the Intelligence ministry to create roadblocks for any US-Iran diplomacy. President Ahmadinejad’s public comments that Saberi should be given the opportunity to appeal her case, may support this theory. But it’s election season in Iran and Ahmadinejad’s comments may also be an effort to boost his popularity with the voters by seeking to eliminate roadblocks to improved US-Iran relations (US-Iran rapprochement enjoys strong support among the Iranian populace).

Alternatively, the Saberi arrest and sentencing may be an effort to sustain the securitized atmosphere in Iran. The Iranian authorities used tensions with the US, as well as the Bush administration’s extensive threats of bombing Iran, to create a securitized atmosphere internally in the country to clamp down on internal dissent and deter human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists from challenging the government. Not unlike the Bush administration, the government invoked national security reasons to justify their policies.

The Obama administration’s outreach to Iran, and the President’s extensive efforts to change the atmospherics between the two countries – particularly the signal that problems between the US and Iran cannot be resolved through threats and his consistent reference to the Islamic Republic – has largely deprived the Iranian government of the pretext of a perceived US threat to keep the atmosphere securitized.

Saberi’s case may be an effort to retain elements of that atmosphere and signal the population that even though the US and Iran may have a dialogue soon, no one should think that regime’s internal red lines can be questioned and challenged now. Though most human rights defenders agree that a US-Iran rapprochement will in the long run be very beneficial for the human rights situation in Iran (Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, favors talks on these grounds, for instance), there are signs that a lowering of US-Iran tensions may create a short-term backlash against pro-democracy and human rights forces in the country.

But the motivation of the Iranian authorities may also be of a completely different nature. Tehran has signaled that there is a general consensus among the many power factions in Iran that a dialogue with Washington should be pursued. One of the hesitations that exist, however, is whether President Obama has the ability to deliver and the resolve to stand up against the many forces in Washington – domestic and otherwise – that oppose a US-Iran rapprochement.

Entering into a diplomatic process that fails, many in Tehran fear, can strengthen the case for international sanctions against Iran – as well as potential military action. Just as much as Washington has its many legitimate concerns about Iran’s sincerity and ability to come to an agreement with the US in spite of its anti-American ideology, Tehran has its concerns about Washington’s – not just President Obama’s – intentions and ability to come to terms with the Iranian government.

In his reaction to Obama’s Norooz message, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hinted of Iran’s hesitations. Pointing out that “Changes in words are not adequate,” Khamenei asked: “I would like to say that I do not know who makes decisions for America, the president, the congress, behind the scene elements?”

Saberi’s case may be aimed at testing President Obama and his resolve at the earliest possible stage. Will the president continue to push for a dialogue in spite of the backlash from anti-dialogue forces in Washington – and will he prevail?

These potential explanations for Tehran’s actions may not be mutually exclusive. Similarly, none of them may be valid either – outside speculation about Tehran’s motives may once more be off the mark. But mindful of the Iranian Judiciary’s handling of the case, the least credible explanation is that Saberi is a spy.

Posted By Trita Parsi

    4 Responses to “Why Roxana?”

  1. Rosa says:

    Overall, I think this post is correct is maintaining that Saberi’s arrest has more to do with U.S./ Iran relations then it does with possible espionage. There is a great video story that presents multiple theories about Iran’s motives. All from highly credible sources it is work a watch, here is the link : http://www.newsy.com/videos/jailed_journalist_shakes_up_u_s_iran_dialogue/

  2. a reader says:

    Generally speaking, as long as the U.S government openly talks about “intelligence findings” in Iran, these accusations are logically acceptable.nobody even talks about NIE report that is in complete violation of the sovereignty of Iran. where are those “findings” are coming from? as it has been proven, from Iranians regrettably. it’s the greatest irony of modern time that those who are intimating other nations are accusing them at the same time of defending themselves! Western public, as I see here, is out of consciousness. Modernity supposed to bring rationalism, in contrast it has brought idiotism!

    The fact that we might be (Iranian-whatever) does not mean that we should only accuse Iran’s gov. of wrongdoing. The rulers of Iran should think purely in maximizing Iran’s interest, not necessarily the interest of Iranian-Americans, Iranian-Canadians…My interest is not purely Iranian at the moment as I am concerned for the society that I live in right now as well. so, although Iran’s gov. should talk into consideration these groups’ advise, in the final analysis, it’s the the interest of Iran that should be prevailed. In that respect, it might not be in the interest of Iran at this juncture to rush into negotiation or deal with the U.S. Clearly, it is the U.S that wins in such a scenario.

    I don’t like to talk about velvet revolution, but the U.S gov. has already declared that it will use media … in future, intensively, in shaping its policy on Iran (I can’t remember now, but I think I read the news here in your website). It’s surprising to see Pres. Obama is dismayed to see the outcome of his own policy!

    * I can’t imagine how a lady who grow up in the U.S, was close to be miss-America…can live in such a conservative society, let alone the official dress code of the country, for 6 years.Just do a survey from your Iranian-Americans ladies and see what percent are going to spend the most active years of their life in that situation. I don’ mean over there is bad (in contrary, it’s great for that culture), it’s just a different mentality. For men,it’s not a very big change, but for women, it’s a different world. Miss.Saberi’s case sounds a bit strange! without the spy accusation though.

  3. a reader says:

    worth to read:


    being an Iranian-American community does not mean to defend anybody with any intention just because she/he is an Iranian-American.
    HOW DO YOU KNOW SHE IS NOT A SPY?! To prove this, you need to have daily info. about her which I doubt you have. However, to prove otherwise, just one day’s wrongdoing would be enough! this is a simple mathematics!

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Larry Page
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Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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