After Iran Frees Saberi, Will the U.S. Reciprocate?

After Iran Frees Saberi, Will the U.S. Reciprocate?

Two weeks ago, a senior European diplomat arrived in Washington with a message from the Iranian government. The Iranians saw a parallel between the case of captive American journalist Roxana Saberi and that of three Iranian diplomats held by the U.S. military in Iraq. The Iranians were not demanding an exchange of prisoners, the European envoy told TIME, but were setting up a more subtle test of the Obama Administration’s intentions. Now that Saberi has been released, Tehran will be watching the U.S. reaction for signs of a reciprocal goodwill gesture.

In public, the U.S. rejects any comparison between the two cases. While Saberi is a journalist jailed in the course of her professional work, Washington says the three Iranian diplomats, arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil in January 2007, are in fact members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps, which oversees Tehran’s ties with militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East. Following Saberi’s release on Monday, the State Department said hers was a humanitarian issue rather than a diplomatic one, and that there was no deal linking it with the detained Iranians. “There was no quid-pro-quo,” said State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

Still, the Iranian back-channel message came at an important moment in
U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington is pursuing a new policy of engagement
with Iran and has tried to reassure the Mullahs that its diplomatic overtures are sincere. It is trying to strengthen the hand of Iranian moderates who want to pursue diplomacy, and to undermine hardliners who want to maintain hostile relations with the West. The Saberi case offered an opportunity to do both.

Saberi’s detention had the hallmarks of a diplomatic cat-and-mouse game from the start. Iran watchers viewed it as a play by Iranian hardliners to insert themselves into the debate over diplomatic engagement, giving anti-detente forces a tool to retard diplomatic progress because the U.S. would have to limit its engagement with Tehran as long as she was held captive. “They can use her to sabotage any opening,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution.

Saberi’s release is seen in the administration as a victory for Iranian pragmatists over hardliners, and the U.S. may see a benefit in reciprocating. Releasing the detained Iranians could build trust for talks between Washington and Iran on security issues in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also on the thorny issue of Iran’s nuclear program. And it could strengthen the hand of the Iranian pragmatists who sent the signal through the European diplomatic channel.

On the downside, however, the Arbil three are, in the Pentagon’s eyes, hardened Iranian agents dedicated to undermining stability in Iraq. Washington believes the Revolutionary Guard remains an active sponsor of militant and terrorist groups throughout the region. And the U.S. is wary of establishing a precedent of seeking the release of detained civilians by freeing government operatives held for involvement in espionage or other covert activities.

Still, a different pretext could be found for releasing the detained Iranians. The U.S. is currently trying to hand over to Iraqi authorities all 15,000 or so detainees currently held by the U.S. in Iraq, and that would include the three Iranians . “We’re in the process of working with the Iraqis on how to transfer the Iranians and all detainees, to Iraqi custody,” says Geoff Morrell, spokesman for the Defense Department. If that happens, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be freed.

See TIME’s pictures of the week.