"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Reduction of Roxana Saberi to a Symbol of a Moderate Iran

Roxana Saberi: a human being

Anxious to prove Obama's diplomatic naivety is more effective than statecraft, the media is now portraying the freeing of reporter Roxana Saberi, convicted in a one hour trial, as an opening for the opportunity (tenuous sounding, isn't it?) to improve US relations with Iran. The LA Times is following the predicted line admirably. Article here by way of freeroxana.net.

From the article:

"[A] letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a careful review of the case helped secure her swift release Monday, another of her lawyers said, in an appellate court ruling that surprised Iran watchers and removed a stumbling block in the effort to improve U.S.-Iranian relations."

And later:

"Analysts say Saberi's case carries implications for the Obama administration as it seeks to improve relations with Tehran and resolve long-standing grievances over Iran's nuclear program and support for militant anti-Israeli organizations.

"Saberi's arrest demonstrated the unpredictability of Iran's fragmented, multilayered political and security system, where dissidents, politicians and journalists are sometimes arrested for transgressing undefined ideological and national security rules, such as by having contact with the West.

"But Saberi's release also showed a system capable of flexibility, pragmatism and even damage control. Calls by some senior Iranian officials to review the case suggest that at least some of them were well aware of the harm Saberi's continued imprisonment was doing to the country's image and opted to do away with the distraction rather than satisfy hard-liners.

"'If we assume that this was due to infighting in the government between those who wanted to undermine diplomacy and those who want to give it a chance, I would conclude that the latter group has been able to succeed in a rather swift and impressive way,' said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council and author of 'Treacherous Alliances,' about relations between Iran, the United States and Israel.

"'The amount of political will and maneuvering it takes to reduce an eight-year sentence to two years and then commute the last two years and release her on the spot is far greater than having a one-day kangaroo court and sentencing her in the first place,' he said."

I love the language employed in this article. "militant anti-Israel organizations." Cute. You may know these "militant anti-Israel organizations" as Hamas and Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.

The word militant is defined in my Oxford American Dictionary as "1. prepared to take aggressive action in support of a cause." I'm sorry but I think that organizations that target civilian populations for the purpose of causing panic, who use suicide bombers that target crowded areas such as public buses and restaurants, exceed the term militant. You know you're dealing with quite a group when the term "militant" is a euphemism.

Nowhere in the article is there any reference to the upcoming Iranian elections (less than one month away now on June 12), nor any mention of hardliner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's desire to appeal to more moderate voting elements in Iran. There is however repeated credit heaped upon Ahmadinejad: "But a letter from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for a careful review of the case helped secure her swift release Monday, another of her lawyers said, in an appellate court ruling that surprised Iran watchers and removed a stumbling block in the effort to improve U.S.-Iranian relations." And later restated: "Khorramshahi told the Islamic Republic News Agency that Ahmadinejad's letter helped secure Saberi's release. " I hope the LA Times understands their backing of Ahmadinejad's reelection campaign.

Good job LA Times! Oh, how their crackerjack reporting makes me pine for my earlier days in Southern California...

The NY Times has a string of opinions that can be found here in the aptly titled piece "Why Iran Freed Roxana Saberi." (these op-eds also through freeroxana.net)

Robin Wright, a policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars writes, "Roxana Saberi’s release may remove a major obstacle to U.S. efforts at rapprochement with Iran after 30 years of diplomatic tensions. If her eight-year sentence had been upheld by the appeals court, President Obama would surely have faced serious questions about whether Washington can really deal with Tehran."

Hmm. Saberi's imprisonment was a major obstacle? Yes, the imprisonment of Saberi was wrong and given, at best, cool Western media attention (that was until she was released-- now the media is breaking their arms patting themselves on the back as these op-eds amply demonstrate), but there are plenty more political prisoners languishing in Evin prison. Perhaps there could be even more obstacles that Wright doesn't bother to bring up.

Once again, I must restate that the government of Iran regularly hangs men for the crime of homosexuality, regularly stones men and women to death for the crime of adultery, regularly beats hundreds of government protesters, regularly arrests and beats members of the press and bloggers. Recently Iranian aircraft attacked Iraqi villages. Iran is blatantly anti-Semitic and president Ahmadinejad has famously and publicly denied the Nazi holocaust (this same article mentions the often stated official Iranian conviction that "Israel should be 'wiped off the map'"). Or are these no longer obstacles to the US normalizing relations with Iran? How deep are willing to sink the term moderate?

To be fair, Wright, after making this nonsensical removing major obstacle statement, goes on to say that the chances for changing foreign relations with Iran are dim. Amazingly (for the NYT, not for her), the blame is not levelled exclusively against the US and actually touches upon the complexity of the factors involved in the Iran/US relationship.

She writes, "But Ms. Saberi’s arrest on 'espionage' charges and her one-day trial [one hour actually] –- without legal defense — also underscore Iran’s ongoing suspicions about U.S. policy and the intense internal differences concerning the new U.S. administration. The election of Barack Hussein Obama –- Hussein is one of two central figures in Shiite Islam –- has not eased the fears of many hard-line theocrats in predominantly Shiite Iran.

"For the past two years, Iran has detained several Iranian-American dual nationals because of suspected links to a U.S.-orchestrated velvet revolution' to undermine theocratic rule. The detentions signaled anger about American policy. None of the detainees is believed to have acted against the regime. One scholar advised a government ministry; others were visiting family.

"But Ms. Saberi’s arrest went further than any previous case. And the espionage charges and trial happened after President Obama’s overture to Iran on its new year, March 21.

"In the end, the Iranian-Americans were released after apparent intervention from higher up, in some cases including the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The regime, in the end, understands the broader stakes.

"Yet neither side appears ready to take the big steps -– in tangible ways, beyond words –- to forge a different relationship. Washington’s Iran policy is based on carrots-and-sticks, an approach Iranians disdain as a way to treat donkeys. And Iran’s stick-and-carrot approach in turn alienates Americans who see it as an unacceptable way to treat humans."

I understand that Wright is trying to be neutral in her language but characterizing the stoning and and beating, and the levelling of death contracts on authors (Salman Rushdie author of The Satanic Verses), and the hanging homosexuals as an Iranian "stick and carrot" approach is a little much. Is open support for Hezbollah terrorists and the conviction that Israel should be "wiped off the map" part of the stick?

Parnaz Azima, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, writes, "Roxanna Saberi’s release from prison comes as a relief to those of us who have been following her case and hoping for a thaw in relations between Iran and the United States. The fact that her appeal and release happened so quickly reinforces my belief that this was a political case and not a legal one.

"I credit the pressure the international community brought on Iran for the decision to reduce her eight-year prison sentence to a two-year suspended sentence. Iran’s leaders realized that the case was escalating tensions with the U.S. at the very moment that President Obama was showing a willingness to engage with Tehran and begin a process of rapprochement. Radio Farda listeners in Iran are echoing this, saying that Ms. Saberi’s release is an attempt to reduce strain with Washington.

"Iran has a history of trying to use Iranian-Americans like me and Ms. Saberi to put pressure on the United States. In almost every case, however, the strategy backfires. It’s a wonder they keep trying it."

I'm rather interested in the last paragraph of Azima's opinion. She presupposes that the purpose of "trying to use" Iranian-Americans is to "put pressure on the United States." Is that really true? Could there not be a domestic purpose for such uses? The government of Iran has consistently asserted its official position that the US is the devil (or its agent). By harassing, arresting, and placing a sampling of people remotely affiliated with their enemy in either public display showcases or private kangaroo trials, Iran's government is sending a very loud and clear warning to those considering any association with their enemies in the West. Harassing Iranian-Americans may be an attempt to put pressure on the US, but it also serves as a tool for domestic control-- and it is effective. I don't wonder why they keep doing it.

Pretty much every time I wrote a sizable post about Roxana Saberi, I tried to mention the fact that Saberi's case was not an isolated one. I did this for two reasons. First, while Roxana Saberi's case was unjust and wrong, I did not want to suggest that a person who is an American, a woman, a beauty queen, and a reporter was somehow deserving of greater attention than other nameless political prisoners (almost all of whom are completely Iranian) incarcerated by the government of Iran. While I am personally happy (and a bit surprised) that Saberi is free, I do not believe that the rest of these prisoners should now be written off and forgotten by everyone except Amnesty International.

Secondly, I did not want to reduce the woman that is Roxana Saberi into being merely a symbol. She is a living person who was unjustly jailed by the Iranian government. We should not allow her to become an emblem, a face of the victims of Iran's tyranny. It is unfair and dehumanizing to her. It is likewise unfair to those who suffered even greater loss of life, property, and freedom under the Iranian government's yoke. Saberi's release, though a cause for joyful celebration to her family and friends, is meaningless to them. Her release is not symbolic of a major change in Iranian policy. A change in Iranian policy must be demonstrated, not merely symbolized by token actions of political expediency.

Given the notoriety the Saberi case generated (especially her release), I realize that it is impossible for her case to not take on undue meaning. Appeals to stop this symbolizing are largely pointless. The media, grasping desperately at the hope to normalize relations with a racist, sexist, aggressively expansionist, terrorist sponsoring, tyrannical theocracy, have cut out pictures of Roxana Saberi's attractive face and then pasted it onto that hope. Arguing against this practice would be as futile as arguing against an earthquake.

So the loud speculations begin. The hopes that a moderate Iran will magically emerge from beneath the current oppressive theocracy start. America will be both blamed and credited. Obama supporters will lavish praise upon him and his happy nowruz speech. Ahmadinejad will present himself as a moderate for a short time, while the government he presides over sends money and arms to Hamas, Hezbollah, Somali pirates and warlords, and terrorist organizations in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and others Middle Eastern countries Iran wishes to destabilize.

But in a few weeks from now, when the speculations will have died down, the media will have hooked onto another story, the bloggers will have moved onto the next fad, Roxana Saberi will be largely forgotten-- but home safe with her family and her loved ones. Scores more of Iran's political prisoners will not be enjoying these simple comforts.


  1. Jeez. I hadn't realized the extent of willful blindness coming from some of these people. As if internal politics has no part in international relations...

    yeah, right.

  2. I get it now.

    Saberi, an Iranian American, was jailed as a message to Iranians: No Iranian is safe.

    Then freed, as Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi (commenting on the NY Times Opinion piece) "to lead the naive and self-important Obama admin to think they’re ever so effective and . . . because they want to buy time to keep running a muck."

    Two birds with one stone.