Off camera: Roxana Saberi, the Iranian-American journalist seen here shooting footage in Tehran in a 2003 file photo, has been on trial behind closed doors in a Tehran courtroom, on specious charges of buying wine and espionage. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)
Leaving her to languish in Evin prison, Tehran's Bastille (or Abu Ghraib, if you prefer), for more than three months before world opinion got wind of the outrage, Iranian authorities are suddenly fast-tracking Roxana Saberi through the sham of a trial--in secret, naturally. Saberi is the 31-year-old native of Fargo, N.D., the daughter of an Iranian father. She holds dual Iranian and American citizenship and had been a stringer for the BBC, Fox News, NPR and Inter Press Services, mostly from Iran since 2003. She was arrested on specious charges in Tehran in January.
"Yesterday, the first trial session was held. She presented her final defense," judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi told reporters. "The court will issue its verdict within the next two to three weeks."
It began in January with the claim that she was committing journalism without a license. She's been in Iran since 2003, but she last worked for NPR in 2006. Reporters Without Borders reports her father, Reza Saberi, saying that "she had not worked for the media since 2006," and that, in her father's words, "she had been concentrating since 2006 on studying Farsi and Iranian culture at a Tehran university.”
That's not entirely true, but close enough: Her last byline, for Inter Press Service, dates from Dec. 11, 2007, and before that she hadn't bylined anything since January 15, 2007.
Iranian authorities then accused Saberi of buying wine. Alcohol is illegal in Iran, a dry nation whose ayatollahs, like clerics everywhere, do their drinking behind closed doors (or at least have the decency to do it in Beirut, where it keeps the Lebanese economy humming). Still, those charges couldn't hold Saberi in prison very long. So last week, maybe caught off-guard by the rising protest around the world, authorities unholstered the big one: spying.
Cue McCarthy with beard and turban, and you get the idea (though McCarthy didn't do all his drinking behind closed doors). As Reporters Without Borders notes, Ayatollah Khamenei, who dubs himself the Supreme Leader, "ordered a crackdown on independent newspapers and journalists in 2000 for 'collaborating and for being the domestic centre of enemy activity.' Most of the journalists arrested and jailed in Iran are charged with spying. Among the journalists currently held on this charge are Adnan Hassanpour, Mohammad Hassin Falahieh Zadeh and Mohammad Sadegh Kabodvand."
The regime did not have the temerity of arresting an American, however. The fact that it did so the month of Barack Obama's inauguration suggests that the more hirsutely reactionary wing of the regime are using Saberi to make a statement. She's a pawn in the reactionaries' increasing fears that the reformist candidate for president in next June's election, Mirhossein Mousavi, may well beat Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For his part, Ahmadinejad's campaign, bedraggled by the sorry state of the economy after five years of mismanagement (think Bush in cheap suits), needs a whipping post. Unfortunately for Saberi, she may be it.
For the record, here are the first few paragraphs from Saberi's last bylined piece for Inter Press Services, which may have caught Iranian authorities' ire. The piece was headlined: "Iran has power over Shia Militia, Iraq leader says."
Iraq's deputy prime minister has credited Tehran with helping curb the activities of a radical Shia Muslim militia, and he is also hoping Iran will do more to help stabilize its western neighbor.Nothing to send someone to jail over, but enough, in the calculus of Iranian insecurities, to send turbans a-twirling.
"There is no doubt the Iranians have recently applied influence and leverage over Jaish al-Mahdi to contain and limit its operations inside Iraq," Barham Salih said. "This is a welcome sign. But I'll be very frank with you: The very fact that Iran can turn on and off the activities of Jaish al-Mahdi is one of concern to me as an Iraqi official."
Washington has long accused Tehran of training, arming and funding Shia extremist groups in Iraq -- groups such as the Mehdi Army militia run by cleric Muqtada al Sadr. U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates accused Iran of interference on Saturday and called Tehran's foreign policies a threat to the United States and to the Middle East.
Gates' comments, however, followed those of some U.S. officials who said in recent weeks that Iran appears to have halted the flow of arms across its border with its western neighbor, Iraq.
If only there was a little more twirling on this side of the world. It isn't enough for Hillary Clinton to be merely "deeply concerned" and to pledge to "follow this very closely," as if Saberi's case was a reality show on cable. It isn't even enough for Clinton alone (whose guardedness on the matter is itself an outrage, and who's proving why she's not quite fit for the job) to be intervening--if you can even call it that. (You can't: being "concerned" is not intervening.)
Why isn't Barack Obama intervening? The longer his administration stays neutral, the more it implicitly concedes the game to Iran. And the more the administration turns Roxana Saberi into a pawn of its own in its own maneuvers with the ayatollahs.