Iran's judiciary ordered a full investigation Monday into the case of an American journalist imprisoned for allegedly spying for the U.S. and allowed the woman's parents to visit her for the first time since she was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The developments in the case of Roxana Saberi appear to be the latest signs that some senior Iranian officials want to ensure tensions over the case do not derail moves toward a dialogue with the Obama administration to break a 30-year diplomatic deadlock between the two countries.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton renewed calls for Iran to release Saberi said she hoped for positive action from the judiciary chief's investigation order.
"We believe she should be freed immediately, that the charges against her are baseless and that she has been subjected to a process that has been non-transparent, unpredictable (and) arbitrary," Clinton told reporters.
Saberi, who was born in the U.S. and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, was convicted of espionage last week after a one-day trial behind closed doors. Her Iranian-born father, Reza, told The Associated Press that he and his wife visited their daughter in Evin prison north of Tehran.
"She seems to be OK," he said. "She was looking forward for the appeal because she knows that this kind of verdict was too heavy for her."
The judiciary chief's order came a day after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Tehran's chief prosecutor urging him to ensure Saberi be allowed a full defense during her appeal. It was a rare request from an Iranian president and came at a time when President Barack Obama has been seeking engagement with Iran's leaders.
Obama advised to keep quiet
However, Iran's Foreign Ministry took a swipe Monday at President Barack Obama, saying "those who studied law" should not comment on the case without seeing the context. It was a clear reference to Obama, who has a law degree from Harvard University and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago before becoming president.
Obama said Sunday he was "gravely concerned" about the safety and well-being of Saberi and was confident she wasn't involved in espionage.
Some analysts have said the mixed messages emerging from Iran may be an indication of political divisions in the leadership, with hard-liners in the judiciary trying to hamper government moves toward closer relations with the U.S. by pressing the Saberi case.
Saberi had been living in Iran for six years and worked as a freelance reporter for news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp. Because Saberi's father was born in Iran, she received Iranian citizenship.
Iran has released few details about the charges. Saberi was arrested in January and initially accused of working without press credentials. But earlier this month, a judge leveled a more serious allegation that she was passing classified information to U.S. intelligence services.
Saberi's father said he hoped officials will heed Ahmadinejad's letter.
"Also, they should be compassionate in their judgment and not be very harsh," he told the AP. Saberi's parents, who live in Fargo, traveled to Iran to seek her release.
"As far as she is healthy and she is taking good care of herself," her mother, Akiko Saberi said. She denied her daughter was a spy, saying "once you know her she is the last person to do that."
The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Iran has been mostly lukewarm to the Obama administration's overtures, but last week, Ahmadinejad said Iran was ready for a new start.
Saberi's conviction came about two months ahead of key presidential elections in June that are pitting hard-liners against reformists, who support better relations with Washington. Ahmadinejad is seeking re-election, but the hard-liner's popularity has waned and he has been trying to draw support away from his top reformist opponent, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Ahmadinejad met late Sunday with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz at a U.N. racism conference in Geneva and Merz pressed Saberi's case. Clinton said the Obama administration is continuing to work with Swiss intermediaries, which have represented U.S. interests in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis.
The hard-line Iranian newspaper Jomhuri criticized Ahmadinejad's letter to the Tehran prosecutor in an editorial Monday, saying government intervention in the judiciary was banned by the constitution. It also said the letter implied the judiciary had not upheld Saberi's rights.
Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Monday he wants to travel to Iran with a delegation to personally appeal for Saberi's release.
"We need all those that have a voice to help us appeal to Iran to please let her go," Jackson said at a university forum during a visit to Malaysia.
"Leaders of wisdom must not allow this young woman to be a pawn in a bigger debate and lose focus on so many possibilities," Jackson added.
Effort to gain leverage?
Some analysts have speculated Iran is using Saberi's case as a way to gain leverage over the U.S., possibly to procure the release of five Iranian diplomats detained in northern Iraq in 2007.
Saberi was born in the U.S. and grew up in Fargo, N.D., where she was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1997. She had been living in Iran for six years and worked as a freelance reporter for news organizations including National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.
Her father said she had been working on a book about Iranian culture and hoped to finish it and return to the U.S. this year.