Lessons for Americans from Roxana Saberi's Release

Roxana Saberi, the Iranian American journalist was freed in Iran after a higher court overturned the 8-year sentence given to her for alleged (and absurd) espionage accusations. There are a number of lessons that President Obama should take form Roxana's release:

1) Talking with Iran works. Time and again, the Iranian regime has shown that it is prone to change on human rights when confronted by the international community. For instance, in the cases of the arrest of Haleh Esfandiari of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars or detainment of fifteen British soldiers in 2007, the Iranian regime promised to persecute the victims. But after the arrests received strong international criticism, the regime released the victims. Another instance relates to the state's execution of juvenile offenders, which activists in Iran have been fighting for decades to stop. But it was no coincidence that Hossein Zabhi, Iran's Deputy State Public Prosecutor, announced on October 15 of 2008 that Iran would no longer execute juvenile offenders for drug crimes; a day earlier, the United Nations member states began a debate on the rights of the child and more than 300 NGOs from eighty-two countries called on the General Assembly to take urgent action to end executions for crimes committed by children.

2) As the president of the United States, President Obama has the responsibility to speak up on human rights. Some Americans believe the United States has no moral authority on the subject and give recent examples of torture and renditions to make that point. However, the fact is that although over the past few years, the United States has engaged in questionable actions, the current scrutiny by the media and lingering possibilities of prosecution of those who were involved attest to the fact that even when America is at its worst, there is accountability. It is wrong to look at respect for human rights as black and white and conclude that the U.S. has not been perfect, it has no moral authority over a country like Iran where atrocities are not nearly comparable to anything that have ever been committed by the American government. As the oldest democracy with the strongest economy and military in the world, the United States has not only the ability, but responsibility to use its weight and leverage to push the cause of human rights.

3) Those who dismiss real violations of human rights in Iran in the name of respecting "cultural differences" need to stop. This writer has lived in Iran for sixteen years and has seen no evidence that there is any support for human rights violations in Iranian culture.

4) There are other issues non-related to its nuclear program on which to pressure Iran. The United States government--under heavy pressure from lobbyists in Washington--has exclusively obsessed about Iran's nuclear program. But the nuclear issue is the wrong issue to pressure Iran on for a number of reasons. First, as a member of NPT, Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium. Second, for a country with a young population that yeans to join the rest of the free world and build a modernized economy, the nuclear program has become a matter of national pride. Going after such an issue is likely to turn the population against those who are exerting the pressure, which in this case is the United States. That's also why the Iranian regime has been doing everything to keep the conversation on the nuclear issue. But when the United States speaks up on human rights in Iran, it has more leverage because in that area, Iran is violating the international agreements it has signed (Universal Declaration of Human Rights). And more importantly, when the President speaks up on human rights, he is making America more--not less--popular among Iranians. For these reasons, the United States both has the highest moral authority and strategic interest to make human rights the key issue for any upcoming dialogue with Iran. Doing otherwise will make President Obama look like he is sacrificing the cause of human rights in Iran by making deals with Ahmadinejad (or whoever the next poppet of the Supreme Leader is going to be), whom Iranians consider as their oppressor, not legitimately elected.

5) The case of Roxana showed the power that bloggers and citizen journalists now have to affect the actions of the American president. When Roxana Saberi was arrested, President Obama kept silent for at least a few weeks and journalists didn't fare better when it came to covering the story. But when bloggers began talking about Roxana and even demanded that President Obama speaks up, he broke his silence and demanded Saberi's release, they pushed the media to begin to cover the arrest, building momentum among international organizations like Reporters Without Borders--an international organization that fights for freedom of press worldwide--to fight for Saberi's release. This is an empowering experience that should inspire all bloggers to continue to use their platforms to push for progressive change.

6) Lastly, nonviolent action works, even in Iran. When it comes to contentious situations such as Roxana's arrest or any conflict that involves a nondemocratic state like Iran, many people--unfortunately, including many Iranians in Diaspora--believe that violence is the best and only effective way to change the Iranian regime or its behavior. But Roxana took her lessons not from these hawks, but from Akbar Ganji, another journalist who was jailed in Iran years ago. During that time, instead of calling for violence, Ganji went on an 80-day hunger strike that resulted in extensive coverage of his deteriorating health condition in jail and eventual release. Roxana took that lesson and put it to work. On April 21, Roxana went on a hunger strike inside Iran's Guantanamo style Evin Prison and stayed on for nearly two weeks. Her hunger strike led the members of Reporters Without Borders to organize their own hunger strike in solidarity with Roxana. Her hunger strike, as well as that of Reporters Without Borders were critical in continuing the mounting of international pressure on Iran that led to her release.

Roxana Saberi's story had a happy ending. But this should be the beginning of another story, and that is the United States government, as well as journalists and bloggers' speaking up about human rights atrocities in all parts of the world, rather than just Darfur.

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