Here’s what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter’s credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of “curiosity,” do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?

Roxana Saberi is a very lucky woman. As the Independent reported, not only did she copy a secret Iranian document about the war in Iraq, but she also visited Israel:

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report “out of curiosity” while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran’s ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

It turned into a key part of the prosecution’s case against Ms Saberi during her secret, closed-door trial in mid-April before an Iranian security court, Mr Nikbakht said. Prosecutors had also cited a trip to Israel that Ms Saberi had made in 2006, he said.

More will come out on this story, I suppose. The same newspaper reports:

Ms Saberi had admitted that she had copied the document two years ago but said she had not passed it on to the Americans as prosecutors had claimed. … Ms Saberi also told the appeals court that she had engaged in no activities against Iran during her visit to Israel.

According to Reuters, the document in question was a report prepared by the Center for Strategic Research in Tehran.

Hillary Clinton, celebrating her release, said: “We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released.”

It’s comforting to take the whole story at face value, and to assume that Saberi was a naive and innocent bystander in a power struggle between moderates and hardliners in Iran, of course. President Ahmadinejad intervened in the case, seemingly pushing for leniency and fairness. At least one observer in Iran, Ibrahim Yazdi — who is no fan of the hardliners, though he served as foreign minister in the early days of the Islamic Republic — told the Times

“Mr. Ahmadinejad wants to take serious steps towards improving ties with the United States before the elections. If he succeeds, it would be to his interest.”

It’s certainly possible that those who orchestrated her arrest did it to undermine or sabotage the diplomatic dance between Iran and the United States. Because Iranian politics is so opaque, it’s impossible to know anything about what happened behind the scenes to free Saberi — or to conclude who, exactly, were the winners and losers in Iran, if any. At the very least, Saberi’s release — especially in view of the fact that the charges against her may not have been entirely fabricated — could be a good omen for US-Iran relations.

And a bad omen for Bibi Netanyahu, who is busily preparing his visit to Washington next week. Netanyahu will argue, no doubt, that Obama’s opening to Iran won’t work, and he’ll demand a short deadline before reverting back to the big-stick policy of sanctions and threatened military action.

UPDATE Vali Nasr, an adviser to the State Department in [Richard Holbrooke’s]office, is in Tehran, according to Iranian reports confirmed by Iran’s foreign minister. Supposedly his trip is about the Saberi case, but of course it’s a much more positive sign that something limited to just that.

UPDATE II According to Barbara Slavin, an editor at the Washington Times who talked to Nasr, he is most definitely not in Iran.