An Iranian American journalist accused of spying for the U.S. was sentenced by an Iranian court to eight years in prison, a move likely to strain the Obama administration’s recent overtures to improve relations with Tehran.
Roxana Saberi, 31, who had reported for the British Broadcasting Co. and National Public Radio in Washington, had faced charges of espionage during a trial Monday before Iran’s Revolutionary Court.
“The eight-year sentence is true. I will appeal the verdict,” said Saberi’s lawyer, Abdul-Samad Khorramshahi. It was not clear if she was convicted today or earlier in the week.
Under Iranian law, Saberi, who was arrested two months ago, could have been sentenced to 10 years in prison. She was charged with spying on Iran, in the guise of a journalist, while passing on information and documents to American intelligence services. The deputy prosecutor for the Revolutionary Court had told Iran’s media that Saberi confessed to the charges.
The U.S. had condemned the charges as “baseless and without foundation.” The sentencing followed indications on Thursday by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran was seeking better relations with the West and would offer proposals to resolve the standoff over his country’s nuclear program. It is unclear what effect Saberi’s case will have on Washington’s diplomatic strategy, but it puts pressure on President Obama at a time when Iran’s influence is growing in the Middle East.
“I think in the case against Saberi the Islamic Republic of Iran wants to intimidate the intellectuals and dissidents in the less than two months before the country’s elections so that they dare not stick their heads out,” said Reza Kaviani, an analyst based in Tehran.
“The heavy sentence against Roxana is a message to all intellectuals. . . . I do hope her case will be on the negotiating table” between Washington and Tehran.
Mojtaba Bigdeli, a former spokesman for the Hezbollah Islamic movement in Iran, said: “It’s normal for somebody who has violated our law to be sentenced. It has nothing to do with [international] bargaining chips or with President Obama. . . . I do hope her case will be soon over, but Iran has its own national interests, and issues such as nuclear technology are sensitive and some countries are trying to undermine our interests through someone posing as a journalist.”
Saberi’s parents, Reza and Akiko, had traveled to Iran and were in Tehran for the verdict. Born in New Jersey, Saberi holds dual American and Iranian citizenship. Iranian authorities rescinded her press credentials in 2006, but she continued working on a book and reporting for media outlets.
Her case was taken up by human-rights groups as another sign of shrinking civil liberties and press freedoms under the country’s hard-line Islamic government.