WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) -- Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi has become the latest pawn to be manipulated by the government of Iran as it plays for time while developing its nuclear-weapons program at breakneck speed.
Saberi, a U.S. citizen, has been sentenced to eight years in jail as an American spy, but Iran's supreme legal authority, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, announced Monday that he had already approved a "careful, quick and fair" assessment of her appeal, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Shahroudi was responding to a pledge Sunday by hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Saberi should be allowed to offer a full defense during the appeal process. Ahmadinejad then called on Iran's chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, to re-examine the case.
The 31-year-old Saberi hails from Fargo, N.D., and has established a reputation as one of the most reliable and respected Western journalists operating in Iran. She is a regular freelance correspondent for National Public Radio in the United States and for the BBC. She was arrested in January, allegedly for operating without proper press credentials. Even that charge appeared obviously trumped up at the time. This month, she was also charged with being an American spy.
The conviction of Saberi appeared to be a cynical, politically calculated ploy by Tehran to use her as a bargaining chip with inexperienced new U.S. President Barack Obama. Saberi was tried in a kangaroo court trial that lasted only one hour last week.
The Iranian judiciary and government are not independent of each other. They are both tightly controlled by the theologically hard-line Shiite clerics who run the Islamic republic.
Speaking at the 34-nation Summit of the Americas on Saturday, Obama pledged his support for Saberi and rejected the Iranian claim that she is a U.S. intelligence agent.
Saberi "is an American citizen, and I have complete confidence that she was not engaging in any sort of espionage," the president said. "She is an Iranian-American who was interested in the country which her family came from, and it is appropriate for her to be treated as such and to be released."
However, Ahmadinejad made clear Monday he had not mellowed in any significant way when he addressed the U.N. international conference on racism in Geneva, Switzerland, with another of his ringing denunciations against the very existence of the state of Israel.
Ahmadinejad's performance in Geneva was particularly significant since it showed the Iranians were not prepared to even moderate their rhetoric, let alone rein in their enormous expansion of gas centrifuge capacity, despite growing fears around the Middle East that Israel may be near to ordering airstrikes against Tehran's widespread nuclear facilities.
Iran had 3,800 centrifuges operating last November to separate nuclear weapons-grade uranium-235 from uranium-238. By the time Obama took office, that number is believed to have grown to 5,000, and the Iranians appear determined to have at least 7,000 of them operating simultaneously.
Israel has a tough new government whose three leaders -- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- all believe that the Iranian nuclear program poses a threat to their nation's existence. Even traditionally dovish Israeli President Shimon Peres has said Israel may need to act against the Iranian nuclear program to ensure its survival.
However, neither Obama nor his predecessor, President George W. Bush, was prepared to either attack the Iranian nuclear facilities or approve any Israeli air attacks on them. There have been reports that Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been reviewing possible measures they could take to punish Israel if it launched such attacks anyway, including a possible suspension of U.S. military aid to the Jewish state.
Obama sent a video message several weeks ago to Ahmadinejad offering a new era of constructive dialogue to reduce and resolve the 30 years of conflict between the United States and Iran. But Ahmadinejad replied by lecturing the U.S. leader and demanding unilateral apologies from him -- without offering any of his own.
Saberi's prospects of release still appear quite good: Her value as a negotiating ploy for the Iranians to put pressure on Obama is very clear. And Ahmadinejad's denunciation of the very creation of the state of Israel on Monday had another ironic significance. For he delivered it in the Palais des Nations in Geneva, which between the two world wars was the home of the infamous League of Nations that failed catastrophically in its efforts to preserve world peace in the 1930s.
History appears to be repeating itself -- as both tragedy and farce.