Editorial: Iran should free Roxana Saberi

There undoubtedly are things we don’t know about the circumstances and issues surrounding the arrest in Iran of Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist accused of spying for the United States and tried on that charge Monday in Tehran. The likelihood that she was actually spying seems extremely low, and some have cast doubt as to whether she was originally arrested (in January) for buying a bottle of wine, as most news stories have said.

If anything is clear about this case, it seems to be that her arrest and trial are part of a complex series of maneuvers as the U.S. and Iran grope toward a resumption of some sort of direct talks and as Iran moves toward presidential elections in June. Just what games are being played is unclear, but Roxana Saberi appears to be a pawn in at least one of them.

Born of an Iranian father and a Japanese mother who still live in Fargo, N.D., Roxana was a Miss North Dakota who worked briefly at a TV station in Fargo. She has lived in Iran for the past six years, working on a book, working toward a master’s degree, and freelancing for the BBC, National Public Radio and other outlets, in Iran and other countries in the Middle East. With dual Iranian-American citizenship, she had her press credentials revoked in 2006, but she has continued to file short reports for NPR, which NPR says the Iranian government has “tolerated” since then (for updates on her case, check http://freeroxana.net).

Ms. Saberi was held in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran for almost three months before she was charged with espionage this month. The Iranian government announced that she had admitted guilt on all charges at a time when her lawyer said he hadn’t even seen all the formal charges. Her closed-door trial Monday was brief. A verdict is expected soon.

Robert Levinson, an American private detective investigating cigarette smuggling, has not been heard from since he disappeared in Iran in 2007. Esha Momeni, an Iranian-American accused of supporting a campaign for women’s rights, was detained briefly and is not allowed to leave Iran.

Surrounding this case are tentative moves by the Obama administration to establish direct talks with Iran over the regime’s apparent efforts to develop a nuclear weapon and other issues; the Iranian election June 12 at which the erratic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be replaced by the reputedly more pragmatic Mir-Hossein Mousavi; and persistent rumors that Israel might try to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

So is the accusation a pre-election effort to stir up hard-line sentiment behind Mr. Ahmadinejad? A move by hard-line elements of the regime to torpedo possible U.S.-Iranian rapprochement? A generalized warning to foreign journalists not to get too snoopy? A warning to Iranian journalists that whatever press freedom exists in Iran is strictly provisional? Some combination of those — or none of the above?

We really don’t know.

We do know that while moves toward more direct contacts between Iran and the United States are probably inevitable and possibly desirable, the Iranian regime should be informed that snatching U.S. citizens from the streets and filing bogus charges against them is unacceptable. Any further diplomatic overtures should be suspended until Roxana Saberi is freed.