BOB GARFIELD: More than two months ago, Iranian-American reporter Roxana Saberi was arrested and detained in Iran.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A troubling situation is taking a grave turn in Iran, where an American journalist is now charged with spying.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Saberi grew up in North Dakota and had dual citizenship. She had lived in Iran for six years and has reported for NPR and the BBC.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Iranian officials have said that her journalist credentials had expired, but now they have added, quote, “Under the cover of a journalist, she gathered classified information and sent it to the U.S. intelligence services.”
BOB GARFIELD: OTM producer Nazanin Rafsanjani has been following this story this week.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: The words “Evin Prison” strike fear in every Iranian. It’s a place where journalists, political dissidents, scholars and ordinary citizens have been held, tortured and killed for years, before and since the Islamic Republic came to power. It’s located in the mountains of Tehran, and from down below you see the outlines of the prison walls, and you can't help but imagine what goes on in there. Roxana Saberi’s parents traveled to Iran last week to visit their daughter in Evin. Before he left, Saberi’s dad, Reza Saberi, spoke with NPR’s Weekend Edition.
REZA SABERI: She hasn't had this kind of experience and this kind of hardship in her life. This is the first time, and you just don't know how long she can hold on.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: She’s been holding on now since late January. On February 10th, she called her dad to tell him she'd been arrested. I first heard about Saberi’s arrest from my dad, who nervously called to ask if, in light of her imprisonment, Brooke and I were going ahead with plans to report in Iran this spring. Like Saberi, I hold dual citizenship, which means that when I'm in Iran I'm considered an Iranian citizen and the U.S. Government can do little to help me if something goes wrong. We at On the Media had been discussing going to Tehran and reporting on the upcoming elections, the ever-shifting lines of press freedom and whether the Obama Administration’s more conciliatory tone towards Iran had changed anything there. But that change in tone, some Iran scholars argue, is exactly what’s made it so dangerous for Saberi and other journalists to be in Iran. Karim Sadjadpour is a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: There’s absolutely no reason or pretext for the Islamic Republic to have imprisoned her, apart from the fact that there’s factions in Iran who have a long history of wanting to sabotage any type of confidence building or detent between the United States and Iran.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: It’s happened before, says Sadjadpour. After September 11th, the U.S. and Iran had common goals. Both wanted to get rid of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, Iran having fought an eight-year war against his regime in the '80s. The two countries actually were working together for the first time in a long time, until January of 2002, when Israeli forces intercepted an Iranian ship, called the Karine-A, in the Red Sea. It was full of weapons and headed, pretty overtly, to Palestine. Karim Sadjadpour.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: The Iranians really wanted to leave fingerprints. For two, three decades now we've heard of Iranian military aid to groups like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, but we'd never actually seen the physical results of it. They'd never been caught, but this was a time when it seemed that they really did want to get caught. The thing we don't know is whom in the Iranian government we're talking about. Are these simply rogue elements within the regime, or are these actions mandated by the Supreme Leader himself?
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Whoever was behind it, it worked. As Sajadpour explains, that incident led to the now infamous labeling of Iran, North Korea and Iraq in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union speech.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: After the U.S. referred to Iran as being part of the axis of evil the Iranian leadership started to refer to the United States as the devil incarnate, and things really deteriorated since then.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: The Obama Administration has asked for Roxana Saberi’s return, but it’s also tried to make good on its campaign promise to extend a hand to Iran. Weeks after Saberi’s arrest, on the occasion of the Iranian New Year, President Obama sent a message to the Iranian people, and the government.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right, but it comes with real responsibilities.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Obama referred to Iran by its formal name, the Islamic Republic, something President Bush never did. It was a small but significant step. But with Saberi still behind bars, the question arises, why continue reaching out to a regime that jails an American for months without offering a shred of evidence to justify it, to her lawyer or anyone else? That’s exactly what one reporter asked State Department spokesman Robert Wood during a press conference this week.
CORRESPONDENT, SUE: You seem to be reaching out a lot to Iran, but they don't seem to be responding in kind, particularly with the Saberi case -
ROBERT WOOD: Well Sue, I think you’re right. I mean, we have been reaching out to the Iranians, and we have said from the beginning of this administration that we want to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran. And, obviously, we need a partner with an outstretched hand.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: This back and forth between the two nations is a decades-long political game, now with a journalist caught in the middle. But for journalists, Iran has always been dangerous. There are few clear rules, so it’s impossible to know if you’re breaking them, until the clampdown, which comes suddenly, randomly, but inevitably.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: There’s an old adage from an Iranian intellectual who said that we have freedom of speech in Iran but we don't have freedom after speech.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Karim Sadjadpour.
KARIM SADJADPOUR: The problem in Iran is that there are certain red lines which everyone knows they should adhere to, which is no criticism of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and no criticism of the revolutionary guards. But apart from that, Iran, by Middle Eastern standards, had had a relatively open press. But especially since 2005, we've seen that the space for journalists and scholars and civil society activists has really narrowed, and these individuals are either being imprisoned or they're self-censoring.
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: That’s what I did. I self-censored. When my dad called to ask if we were going to Iran, I know that the journalistically admirable thing to do would have been to say yes. Reporters take risks all the time, and I could have taken this one, but we decided not to go. If Saberi’s arrest is, in fact, a way of resisting better relations with the U.S., it’s too soon to tell if it'll succeed. But if it’s a tactic to intimidate other journalists, it’s working.
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] For On the Media, I'm Nazanin Rafsanjani.