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Iran’s top judge orders probe into American journalist’s case

TEHRAN, Iran – Iran’s judiciary chief on Monday ordered a full investigation into the case of a U.S. journalist convicted of spying and sentenced to eight years in prison, the state news agency reported.

Roxana Saberi’s conviction has complicated the Obama administration’s efforts to break a 30-year diplomatic deadlock between the two countries, and some analysts believe hard-liners opposed to improved U.S.-Iran relations are driving the dispute.

The planned investigation and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s insistence Saberi be allowed to make a full defense during her appeal indicate an attempt by some senior officials to prevent the case from derailing a move toward dialogue with the U.S.

President Barack Obama said Sunday he was “gravely concerned” about the safety and well-being of Saberi and was confident she wasn’t involved in espionage, a day after Iran announced her conviction.

His words prompted criticism from Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Monday, who said Obama should not comment on Saberi’s case before learning the details.

“I advise those who studied law not to comment on a case without seeing its context,” Hasan Qashqavi told reporters during his weekly press briefing Monday.

Obama studied law at Harvard University and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago before becoming president.

Iran has released very few facts about Saberi’s case and initially said she was arrested in January for working without press credentials. The government later charged the 31-year-old dual American-Iranian citizen with spying for the United States and convicted her in a one-day trial behind closed doors.

Qashqavi said Monday that Saberi’s charges included “gathering information and news in an illegal way.” He said Saberi was treated like any other Iranian citizen during her trial. Iran’s legal system does not recognize dual nationality.

The journalist’s Iranian-born father, Reza Saberi, has said his daughter was not provided a proper defense during her trial. He called the proceedings “a mock trial” during an interview with CNN on Sunday from Iran, where he traveled with his wife to seek his daughter’s release.

The U.S. has called the charges against Saberi baseless and said Iran would gain U.S. goodwill if it “responded in a positive way” to the case.

Ahmadinejad sent a letter to Tehran’s chief prosecutor Sunday urging him to ensure Saberi be allowed to offer a full defense during her appeal.

Iran’s judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi on Monday ordered a full investigation into Saberi’s case during the appeals process. He said the probe should be “precise, quick and fair,” according to the official news agency IRNA.

Shahroudi’s decision to order an investigation is unusual, signaling a possible struggle between officials who want to defuse tension over Saberi’s case and those looking to spark it.

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.

Saberi was born in the U.S. and grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, 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.

“Leaders of wisdom must not allow this young woman to be a pawn in a bigger debate and lose focus on so many possibilities,” said Jackson.

The United States severed diplomatic relations with Iran after its 1979 Islamic revolution and takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Relations deteriorated further under former President George W. Bush, who labeled Iran as part of the so-called “Axis of Evil.” Obama has indicated a desire to reverse that trend.

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