Roxana Saberi and Geopolitics

The conviction and sentencing of American (and Iranian) citizen Roxana Saberi after a secret trial is an outrage for which, of course, the Iranian government bears full responsibility. That said, the latest news about Saberi's case raises at least two issues connected to U.S. policy.

First, there was the bizarre news that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had sent a letter to the prosecution urging that Saberi be given a fair trial. It's hard to know whether this is even true, or what it would mean for Ahmadinejad to request a fair trial. It's also possible that the letter was a publicity stunt aimed at Iranian domestic opinion. Ahmadinejad faces a challenge from, among others, "reformer" and former President Mohammad Khatami. ("Reformer" is in quotation marks because it's practically part of Khatami's name.) Or perhaps instead (or in addition), this was a publicity stunt aimed at the U.S. Ahmadinejad may have calculated that his political interests lie in responding positively to the Obama Administration's diplomactic overtures. Holding an American journalist for 7 years on bogus espionage charges will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Ahmadinejad or his successor to do so, as it signals that the mullahs who hold real power in Iran aren't interested in warmer relations with us.

Second, the ability of the U.S. to rally international public opinion against Iran may well be undermined by U.S. detainee policies. The military commissions and combatant status review tribunals for Gitmo detainees almost certainly provided more procedural fairness than the secret trial of Roxana Saberi did. Still, having sacrificed the moral high ground on this issue, we cannot credibly describe the Saberi secret trial to the world as the outrage that it is. To be clear, even had we not undermined our moral authority in this way, it's quite possible that the Iranians would have been equally unmoved by our objections. But at least we could have made them more forcefully.

Posted by Mike Dorf