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Saberi’s Release: For Diplomacy, Internal Politics, or Cash?

May 12, 2009

Hunger-striking-Saberi-fed-intravenously[1]So, the political parlour game in the US is: why was US-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi freed from Iranian custody? Several theories why:

1. For Diplomacy’s Sake: Saberi was released because she was an impediment to future warming US-Iran relations.  Ahmadinejad, it seems, personally wrote to the appeals court to have her sentenced released.  Since this was a politically motivated case, it was only politics — and politicians — who would determine the outcome.  As one Iranian reporter recently noted,

“The [fact that the] appeals court took place very quickly and issued its verdict within 24 hours could be interpreted as an indication of the Islamic republic’s interest to open serious negotiations with the United States,” Jamshidi says. “It seems that Iranian leaders may have opted not to move toward [further] tensions in ties with the U.S. and opened the door for talks.”

2.  Internal Iranian Political Struggle:  Karim Sadjadpour at the Carnegie Endownment suggested an internal struggle between so-called hard liners and other pragmatists are responsible for Saberi’s release:

Most observers believe that hard-line forces within Iran, particularly those who control Evin prison where Ms. Saberi was being held, saw in her harsh treatment an opportunity to scuttle any possible opening the United States created by President Obama’s overtures.

But the international response to her conviction – which ranged from Facebook petitions to expressions of concern by political leaders around the world – clearly caught the Iranian leadership by surprise…Roxana Saberi’s release suggests the hard-line forces lost the battle. The fact that Iran was forced to respond to international pressure is a significant development, and one that could open the door for human rights and press freedom groups to apply additional leverage as the June 12 presidential elections approach.

3. Iran Was Bribed:  Mr. Bomb-Iran-First Michael Ledeen, argues that “the mullahs” were bought off:

Why does the Mafia release hostages? Because they have collected the ransom. So to all those who are looking for subtle reasons for the Saberi release, take it from someone who has been there. Iran collected its ransom. The mullahs aren’t subtle, they’re mafiosi. We probably won’t know for a while what they got, who delivered it, and who worked the deal. But anyone familiar with the workings of the Islamic Republic has to assume that there was a payoff.

I don’t know of a single case in which the mullahs released a hostage for any other reason.

I’m not sure who “the mullahs” are, given the complexities of Iran, and I wouldn’t know who would bribe, and when…

4.  Quid Pro Quo? The US is holding a number of IRGC (Pasdaran) officers caught in Iraq, and Iran might be looking for a little reciprocity, according to Time Magazine.

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In public, the U.S. rejects any comparison between the two cases. While Saberi is a journalist who was jailed in the course of her professional work, Washington says the three Iranian diplomats, arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil in January 2007, are in fact members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees Tehran’s ties with militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East. Following Saberi’s release on Monday, the U.S. State Department said hers was a humanitarian issue rather than a diplomatic one, and that there was no deal linking it with the detained Iranians. “There was no quid pro quo,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

If these IRGC officers are released (under some pretext) in the next few months, this might be the answer.  While the IRGC is an unsavory group, they still are Iranian government employees who were sent to Iraq by other Iranian government employees (and not, shall we say, independent contractors.)  Hence, a trade would not be off the table in return for improved relations.

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