Foreign Affairs Friday: The Reporter in Iran

The case of Roxana Saberi, the American reporter (from North Dakota!) who was imprisoned in Iran, ended well for her this week when she was released. There's been a lot of speculation about why Iran chose to arrest her and then let her go. An NPR story contains three theories:
  • Regime Politics - a battle within the Iranian government between hard-liners and moderates.
  • U.S.-Iran Negotiations - a ploy to show "good will" - or at least create the impression of it.
  • Business as Usual in Iran - Iran arrests a fair number of reporters.
There's also the "she really was a spy" theory. I don't buy this one, as she only had one old document on her, and I think that someone who was really spying on Iran would avoid doing things like traveling to Israel or buying alcohol (both of which she did) in order to avoid drawing attention to herself. As this BBC article says:
For anyone who knows Roxana Saberi, the idea that she was a spy was faintly ridiculous. And working as a journalist without a press card would be the worst possible cover.
I tend to think that her arrest falls under theory 3, and her release falls under theory 2. Again from the BBC article:
Perhaps the original intention in arresting Ms Saberi was to send a warning to journalists in Iran, foreign and domestic.
I think the fact that she is of Iranian descent is important here. The regime doesn't want expatriates coming back and causing them trouble, and this will likely deter many from coming. As the NPR story suggests, "it lets journalists know that none of them are safe." Like any authoritarian regime, Iran fears anyone that might undermine its control.

Having sent its intended message, Iran had little reason to keep holding her. By letting her go, Iran can claim that they showed mercy. Ahmadinejad, particularly, could do so, because he was the public face asking for an honest appeal of her conviction by Iranian courts. Maybe Iran was hoping for something in return from the US, or was worried that they might lose their chance to negotiate with Obama. Maybe they want the US to help prevent Israel from attacking them. CIA director Leon Panetta went to Israel two weeks ago to ask them not to attack Iran without notifying the US.

In the end, this might work out pretty well for Iran, if Saberi's arrest sends the intended message, and her release wins the intended favor. Hopefully, Iran won't be able to get away with this stunt quite so easily.


  1. This was an interesting case. It's all to do with the squabbling for power and attention of competing power factions in Iran. Also of how they want to be perceived by the outside world. If she was a spy then she was the world's worst.

    I must say that I think your blog is great (I really like the header, with all those heads!), well designed and presented and though as a liberal Brit I disagree with a lot of your sentiments, politics is a fun exchange of ideas and competing ideologies and it is always interesting to read how other people are feeling on key issues. There are also so many ugly , vulgar and brainless quasi-political blogs out there, it is pleasure to chance across one that is thoughtful and reasoned and not harsh and shrill.

    Cheers and keep up the good work rom a cold n rainy England..

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Charlie, and thanks for your kind words. My wife gets credit for the blog design.

    The quality of online discourse can definitely vary. The fact that I know most people who read this helps keep me in check, I think.