Release could help Ahmadinejad

The Associated PressMay 12, 2009 

— The judicial reversal that led to the release of an Iranian-American from prison in Tehran on Monday could now offer hints of moderation by Iran's ruling Islamic clerics -- making room for possible overtures by the Obama administration.

The release of Roxana Saberi may also serve to boost hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's goodwill credentials before next month's re-election challenge from reformers.

"It was certainly in the interest of Iran to close this case," said Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "No one wanted this to linger on."

Shortly after the journalist was detained in Iran in late January, President Barack Obama was busy sharpening his appeals for Tehran's leaders to "unclench their fist" and move toward greater dialogue with Washington.

Saberi's release ended a showdown that threatened to bring an abrupt halt to the overtures at thawing a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze.

But it's far from the only detention drama complicating possible Iran-U.S. engagement.

Ahmadinejad made less-than-subtle comparisons between Saberi's appeals fight in Iran's courts and Tehran's demands for the freedom of three Iranians who have been detained in Iraq since a 2007 raid by U.S. forces.

Tehran claims the three are diplomats, but the U.S. military has raised possible links to Iran's Revolutionary Guard -- the powerful military force under direct control of Iran's Islamic rulers. Saberi's release could increase pressure by Iran for Washington to free the detained Iranians or publicly substantiate the allegations.

U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have pressed the Obama administration to demand answers from Iran about an ex-FBI agent who was last seen on Iran's Kish Island in 2007 as he investigated cigarette smuggling for a client of his private security firm.

The timing of Saberi's release -- a month before the June 12 national elections in Iran -- suggests pragmatic objectives by Iran's rulers, some analysts say.

It appears to signal to Washington a sense of stability and willingness to move forward on possible exchanges after the elections -- and perhaps seek ways to ease Iran's standoff with the West over its nuclear program.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration insists that Saberi was wrongly accused, "but we welcome this humanitarian gesture."

The decision also gives Ahmadinejad a chance to soften his image before facing reformist challengers at the polls.

Ahmadinejad's direct sway in judicial affairs is limited, but his supporters in the ruling establishment hold that power. Saberi's release handed Ahmadinejad an opportunity to appear merciful and in tune with the ruling elite.

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