Roxana Saberi

Joel Koyama, Dml - Star Tribune

Roxana Saberi's insights on Iranians

  • Article by: John Rash
  • Star Tribune
  • April 20, 2012 - 8:14 PM

Energy geopolitics is the subject of this month's Minnesota International Center's Great Decisions dialogue. The topic is global, but the words seem to immediately imply Iran, and how its uncertain nuclear future is convulsing countries and consuming conversations of candidates, diplomats, defense analysts, energy experts and voters.

All these observers have been probed or polled about whether there will be, or should be, a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Crippling commercial sanctions have already been imposed by many nations.

Iran's leaders have responded to the threats with expected bellicosity.

Indeed, it seems everyone has weighed in. Except, of course, those who may be most impacted: Iranians.

One of the few Americans with direct insight into street-level Iranian opinions is Roxana Saberi. She's the journalist who was jailed in Iran in 2009 on trumped-up charges of spying.

What she really was doing was researching a book "about different people in Iranian society, and I wanted to tell their stories behind the headlines," said Saberi, who became the subject of worldwide headlines herself when she was held in the evil Evin Prison.

Saberi grew up in Fargo -- "Where all the Iranian-Japanese-Americans go," she joked to listeners at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church in Minneapolis last Sunday. She said in an advance interview that it's difficult to discern Iranian public opinion because there are few reliable public opinion polls, and objective sources of information for Iranians to base their opinions on are scarce.

Newspapers are heavily censored, although "Iranians are very good at reading between the lines, so even if a newspaper doesn't say something explicitly, they can often understand it implicitly," Saberi said.

Some get illegal satellite TV and filtered Internet. But outside opinion may become even more opaque if Iran follows through with plans for a domestic version of the World Wide Web, a move Saberi said could be "disastrous."

Based on six years of reporting from Iran for the BBC, NPR, ABC Radio and Fox News, Saberi believes that "the majority of Iranians would like a more progressive and democratic government that respects human rights. Some think it's possible to have this government and still have it be Islamic. But they don't all agree on what this means, and what the role of Islam should be."

Still others, she said, envision a secular government structure as in the West. Increasingly, others want to turn toward Turkey's economically successful model of a secular government led by an Islamist party.

This desire for a different government doesn't mean that Iranians aren't nationalistic, Saberi said.

"National pride is very strong, and their national identity is based on many factors, including their history of civilization and cultural accomplishments. And a lot of that is being Shiite and also being more Persian than Arab. ... Some very educated Iranians would say that Persians were superior to Arabs, which surprised me, because they were so worldly and they didn't seem like the type to stereotype or discriminate at all."

This nationalism plays out in different ways regarding the nuclear issue, Saberi said. Some are supportive of a nuclear program, while many others want compromise, considering the cost in income and isolation from the rest of the world.

A military attack might backfire and solidify the government's grip -- or iron fist -- over Iranians, Saberi says. Before a ruthless response, the regime was shaken in 2009 by Iran's "Green Movement," which was a Persian precursor to the Arab Spring. But an invasion might create a different dynamic.

"A lot of Iranians realize that a military attack is not likely to change the regime," Saberi said. "And some say they would rally around the flag like we saw in Iran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. The regime was able to stay in power because so many people united for purposes of national unity against a foreign aggressor."

Like most, Saberi hopes that diplomacy diffuses the crisis, but adds that it "won't be time to resume ties with Iran until there are people in power there who have earned legitimacy other than by using force." Saberi also "hopes that I can someday return to Iran if the situation inside improves."

"What would surprise some readers is that many ordinary Iranians like Americans," Saberi said, citing how hospitable even the poorest families were to her, as well as a rare public opinion poll that found about three-fourths of Iranians wanting to normalize relations with the United States. (For their efforts, she added, the pollsters served some jail time.)

"I hope that one day the two countries can resolve their problems, but I hope that also the issue of human rights will never be ignored, because human rights shouldn't be a second- or third-tier issue, but should be a first-tier issue."

"I would like to return. I fell in love with the country," she said, concluding by saying she differentiated between everyday Iranians and the theocracy's thugs who imprisoned her.

Saberi, whose release was aided by relentless government, citizen and press pressure, said she'll continue to speak out about human rights.

"Because it's important to be a voice for the voiceless. Because I saw when I didn't have a voice how important it was when people were speaking out for me. And I realized that every voice does make a difference."


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in "Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to

© 2018 Star Tribune