Breaking: Iran to release Saberi

The BBC reports that Iran has reversed itself on Roxana Saberi and will release her, perhaps even in the next few hours.  An Iranian appeals court reduced and suspended her sentence for espionage, although they did not choose to invalidate the conviction as Saberi had wanted:

An Iran court has cut jailed US-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi’s sentence to two years suspended and she will be freed later on Monday, her lawyer says.

The court heard Ms Saberi’s appeal against her original eight-year prison sentence on Sunday, after an international outcry. …

The five-hour appeal was far longer than the original trial – and before it began Ms Saberi was allowed a half-hour meeting with her lawyer.

If anything demonstrates the perverted nature of Iranian “justice”, that should.  Her appeal took all of five hours and it lasted longer than the original trial.  Saberi’s 30-minute meeting with her attorney was so unusual that the BBC noted it in their report.

More notable, though, is the timing.  This seems calculated as an overture to the US, particularly to Barack Obama, and one has to wonder whether Iran meant the entire effort as a test.  They picked up Saberi just as Obama assumed office, and they charged and convicted her at lightning speed.  The Iranians may have wanted to see whether they could work with the new President, or whether he would go ballistic over Saberi’s treatment.

Obama kept whatever efforts he made on Saberi’s behalf very quiet, and apparently that worked.  The sudden reversal of the mullahs appears to indicate that they either got everything they wanted from the exercise or got frightened away.  Either is plausible, and either could be good or bad news for the US.  After Saberi returns to the US, we may find out more, but for now, it appears that the Obama administration handled this test well.  We’ll know more in the next few weeks as we gauge Iranian behavior and the inevitable series of leaks appear.  That conclusion may change if and when we discover what we traded for her release.

Update: My radio partner Mitch Berg sees a possible quid pro quo:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded that Tehran immediately release the journalist during a news conference on Thursday at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.

She earlier said the United States planned to invite Tehran to a conference on Afghanistan, in a first overture to Iran.

Mitch says that “if indeed the release was accompanied by big concessions from the US, that’s probably not a great precedent,” but we have been working with Iran very quietly over the last several years on Afghanistan already, specifically on drug interdiction.  The Bush administration also made overtures towards Iran on Afghanistan on a similar basis; the holdup wasn’t a lack of US invitation, but Iranian recalcitrance on accepting a more public connection with the US on the issue.  The Bush administration had conducted talks with Iranian representatives on Iraqi security on several occasions over the last few years, so this isn’t exactly a new concept, and wouldn’t have triggered Saberi’s release.

There may still be a stinking concession at the heart of this, but the Afghanistan conference won’t be it.

Update II: Danielle Pletka makes a fair point:

The fact is that the President of the United States just passed a test administered by the Islamic Republic of Iran.  That’s never good news.  To be fair to Barack Obama, this was exactly how George W Bush (read: Condoleezza Rice) played the game as well.  The Iranians were the ones to dole out favors, and the Americans were the ones glad to be on the receiving end.  This is a dangerous dynamic, though one that appears increasingly fruitful for rogue states like Iran and North Korea (with its own American journalists in prison).

If George Bush had won the release of Saberi, I think many on our side would be hailing his cool, calm command in crisis.  Pletka holds both administrations equally accountable for playing on Iran’s home turf, which is another fair way of looking at it.  I’m glad to see Saberi heading home, and I’ll be interested in seeing what we did or gave up to cause Iran to make such a dramatic U-turn on her case.