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Amy Dalrymple, Published April 09 2009

Experts: Iranian charges against Saberi likely a ploy

Espionage charges against imprisoned journalist Roxana Saberi are likely a political ploy, said a University of Minnesota expert on Iran.

William O. Beeman, an anthropology professor who has studied Iran for 30 years, said Wednesday that he thinks Saberi is caught in an internal political conflict while the country is in the midst of an election season.

“We tend not to recognize that other nations have internal politics,” Beeman said. “They play dirty tricks on each other. This is a kind of dirty trick.”

Saberi, a Fargo native who has been jailed in Iran for more than two months, is now accused of passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.

“Under the cover of a journalist, she visited government buildings, established contacts with some of the employees, gathered classified information and sent it to the U.S. intelligence services,” said an investigative judge, who under security rules was identified only by his surname, Heidarifard.

“Her activities were discovered by the counter-espionage department of the Intelligence Ministry,” Heidarifard said.

Earlier, Iranian officials said she was arrested for working in Iran without press credentials. She told her father she was arrested after buying a bottle of wine.

Tom Ambrosio, associate professor of political science at North Dakota State University, said he’s not surprised the charge escalated.

“Espionage is a very typical thing that authoritarian governments charge journalists or people they don’t like with,” he said.

The 31-year-old Saberi, a Concordia College graduate and former Miss North Dakota, will stand trial next week, the judge said, though he did not specify which day.

Although some in Iran have been executed for espionage convictions, Beeman said that’s a remote possibility for Saberi.

Her situation will likely be similar to what happened to three Iranian Americans who were arrested in December 2006 and charged with espionage, Beeman said.

The most well-known, Haleh Esfandiari, a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center, was released after about six months and later spoke publicly about the conditions.

“Her treatment while in detention was not harsh,” said Beeman, adding that she was well-fed, had reading material and a TV and was allowed to contact relatives.

Another possible reason for Saberi’s arrest is that conservative groups in Iran benefit from anti-American rhetoric, Beeman said.

“Creating an external enemy is good strategy when you’re having trouble at home,” he said.

In addition, the pattern for the past eight years has been that any time U.S.-Iranian relations are on the upswing, someone tries to sabotage the relationship, Beeman said.

The Obama administration and North Dakota’s congressional delegation continue working on Saberi’s release.

“We need to get to the bottom of this,” Sen. Kent Conrad said in a Wednesday statement. “We’ve been on the phone with the State Department this morning and requested they continue to press to have Roxana released on bail and work to resolve this issue as soon as possible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590