Page last updated at 19:52 GMT, Monday, 11 May 2009 20:52 UK

Saberi free but thaw no nearer

By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Tehran

Roxana Saberi reporting from Iran in 2004
Few who know Roxana Saberi believe she could have been spying

As international pressure grew for the release of Roxana Saberi, the Iranian authorities were keen to stress that it was purely a legal matter.

Her appeal on spying charges lasted five hours. Both lawyers and Ms Saberi herself were satisfied they had had a fair hearing.

Before it began, officials - from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad downwards - queued up to call for her to be given her full legal rights.

Those who rule the Islamic Republic were keen to show a state governed by the rule of law - a very different impression from her original trial, which lasted barely an hour.

But in Iran, politics is never far removed from the legal system.

Between the lines

Many journalists in Iran believe that Roxana Saberi's original arrest in January was meant as a signal to the Iranian media to watch their step in the run-up to the presidential election this June.

At that stage, the only charge against her was operating without a valid press pass. When the accusation was upgraded to one of spying, the suspicions about political interference grew.

There seems to be no appetite in Tehran to engage in substantive talks on the biggest issue that divides the two countries

We can never fully know what goes on behind the scenes in Iran, but it seems quite likely that someone, somewhere, was using the case to help prevent the improvement in US-Iranian relations that President Barack Obama has been calling for.

It is also true that Iran has legitimate reasons to fear foreign interference. Former US President George W Bush began a policy of providing financial support to activists opposed to the Iranian government.

Many opponents of the Iranian system believe that move was deeply misguided and counter-productive, feeding, as it did, the paranoia of the Iranian authorities.

It is no secret that there are many influential people in the United States and Europe who would like to see the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

Nevertheless, those who know Roxana Saberi have been deeply sceptical that she would be foolish enough to get mixed up with any attempt at regime change, let alone to engage in espionage.

As a freelance journalist who has admitted operating without a press card, she will have known that her phones would most probably have been bugged, e-mails scrutinised and her movements watched, at least from a distance.

Hardly the best cover for a spy.

Diplomatic frost

So if her arrest was political, does her release herald a political opportunity? Is this the cue for a warming of relations between the United States and Iran? Is this the moment for Iran to respond to President Obama's hand of friendship?

For the moment that does not appear likely. So far Iran's reply to every advance from Mr Obama has been frosty in the extreme.

There seems to be no appetite in Tehran to engage in substantive talks on the biggest issue that divides the two countries, Iran's nuclear programme.

Roxana Saberi's release may have removed an obstacle to good relations between the two countries, but that does not mean it will trigger a reconciliation.

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