Page last updated at 19:09 GMT, Saturday, 18 April 2009 20:09 UK

Case tests Obama's Iran agenda

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

It started with a young woman arrested for allegedly buying a bottle of wine.

Roxana Saberi filming in Iran (2003)
Roxana Saberi had worked as a journalist in Iran

Now the case of Roxana Saberi could become the first big test of relations between Iran and the new administration of President Barack Obama.

For nearly three months, Ms Saberi has been held in Evin prison, Tehran.

It soon became clear the bottle of wine was only a pretext. She was accused of operating as a journalist without a valid press pass.

Then, in a space of barely 10 days, she was charged with the much more serious offence of spying, tried and sentenced to eight years in prison.

It is a tough sentence, even on such a grave allegation.

The evidence has never been published, the trial was held in secret and her father claims she was tricked into making a false confession.

Suspicions raised

It all raises deep suspicions over whether this case has been hijacked by hardliners within the Iranian government, eager to sabotage any reconciliation with the United States.

Ever since President Obama started reaching out to the government of President Ahmadinejad, it has been clear that the government here is sceptical of his intentions, and confused about how to respond.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has suggested there is no difference between President Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush. Sometimes it seems as if the government here pines for the certainties of the Bush era.

In one recent demonstration, government approved protesters chanted "Death to Obama" for the first time.

Ayatollah Khamenei
Ayatollah Khamenei suggests there is no real change in US leadership

The confusion is understandable.

Here they chant "Death to America" on state occasions, just as one might repeat God save the Queen, Vive la France or God Bless America.

But if Roxana Saberi's sentence is a political manoeuvre, it could be more complicated than simply an attempt to sabotage new talks.

Already through this case the Iranians have moved the agenda from the nuclear programme that the United States would like to focus on.

They have a bargaining chip to use in talks, perhaps to use as they press for the release of Iranians still held in Iraq.

Or perhaps the Iranians are preparing for a show of mercy, ready to dispatch Roxana Saberi back to the United States.

But for the moment this case is moving Iran and the United States back into conflict, before reconciliation even had a chance to begin.

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