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The great escape

Roxana Saberi’s release lays bare Iran’s political fragmentation

Written by Alia Allana |
May 13, 2009 11:50:43 pm

Roxana Saberi’s ordeal could well have been a plot for a movie: young,beautiful,highly-educated Iranian-American journalist and former Miss USA contender embarks on a mission to document the realities of Iranian life. Falling into disfavour with the government,she winds up being thrown into prison for purchasing a bottle of wine. The charges add up,and it all culminates with the final verdict: that of being a spy for the US government,and a prison sentence of eight years.

Only she is out of jail now. Walking free,Roxana Saberi will have discovered that she has become an international figure. Public demonstrations and a powerful media campaign drummed up the political support needed for her release; US President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed dismay and exerted pressure; and finally it was Mahmoud Ahmedinejad himself,the misbehaving politico,who apparently nudged the judiciary towards relieving her of the charges. The Guardian Council,in a five-hour meeting,came to a “soft” — appeasing? — conclusion,and have got the world wondering: Why is Mahmoud Ahmedinejad cooperating? Were hardliners within the judiciary acting to sabotage foreign policy — and have they just been handed a resounding defeat?

Here’s the context: the Obama administration has made obvious overtures towards diplomatic contact with Iran; however,Iran is yet to indicate that it is willing to negotiate. A possible thawing is already under way: analysts point to Iranian participation at the international conference on the future of Afghanistan in The Hague as an example. Special Envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan,Richard Holbrooke,met with Iranian deputy foreign minister,Mehdi Akhondzadeh,in the first such face-to-face meeting in a tumultuous 30-year relationship between the Islamic Republic and the US. It was at this meeting that a letter from the US was passed to the Iranian leadership requesting the release of Roxana along with other Americans imprisoned in Iran.

Objectively,dialogue between the two countries would undoubtedly benefit Iran. Due to Iran’s perceived failure to abandon its nuclear programme,sanctions — both US and UN — have been applied since 1995. For an economy where inflation is running at 30 per cent,and where the government is suffering a catastrophic loss in revenue due to plummeting oil prices,movement towards reconciliation may well be politically beneficial; hence the defeat of the faction within the hardliners possibly demanding further confrontation. However,Ahmedinejad’s timing has raised an eyebrow or two.

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Iranians,after all,go to the polls in less than a month and Ahmedinejad’s popularity has plunged. A poster child for international misconduct,his presidency is littered with episodes which pushed Iran towards further international isolation rather than towards engagement. The furore following his comments at the UN Conference for racism — which were,ironically,considered emblematic of racist attitudes by some — was only the latest in a series of such lapses. He has maintained throughout his presidency,for

example,that Israel’s existence is based on the “pretext of Jewish suffering.” In fact if there were one simple word to define his politics it would be “defiance”.

Predictably,the opposition are banking on his shortcomings. The main challenge to Ahmedinejad will arise from the Reformist camp,notably from Mir-Hossein Moussavi (the last prime minister) and Mehdi Karroubi (the former speaker of the Iranian parliament). Moussavi will most likely campaign on a platform seeking to improve relations with the West — aiming to promote “an active foreign policy” in order to “achieve detente”. Karroubi has similarly developed his rhetoric around anti-Ahmedinejadisms; “the Holocaust is a fact. It is obvious that it has.” Neither,however,says he’s willing to abandon Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Reformist camp is challenged from within as well — past elections have highlighted its divisions. Mohammed Khatami,the shaper of the modern Reformist movement,suddenly bowed out of the race and left the faction without an identifiable leader; as multiple contenders scramble for power the base continues to get alienated through incoherent party platforms. Karroubi,for example,previously left the reformist camp and started his own party,which failed in the 2005 elections; he is expected to act as a “spoiler”,getting votes from those who would otherwise have gone with Moussavi. 

Thus,whether or not the Saberi release shows that the hardliners are a house divided,the reformers might be unable to take advantage of it. As it stands,the slogan-shouting,rhetorically-challenged Ahmedinejad is still,apparently,the most popular single candidate in the upcoming elections; and he seems to have the favour of Grand Ayatollah Khameini. What is interesting is that the domestic elections have come at an opportune time,forcing even some among Iran’s hardliners to consider opening a channel for dialogue with the Obama administration. Even if changes in

policy are not established,changes in posture will be.

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