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An Iranian-American journalist sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of spying for the United States was released Monday, a legal turnabout that removes an obstacle to President Barack Obama’s opening to Iran but illustrates the volatility of the Iranian government.

The journalist, Roxana Saberi, had been in jail since January, yet an appeals court rejected the sentence, a month after Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrote a letter urging the court to be fair in its review.

U.S. officials said Iran’s handling of the Saberi case underlines a deepening divide within its leadership about how to respond to Obama’s recent overtures. It also reflects domestic politics a month before Ahmadinejad faces a critical election, according to analysts.

“Those who are trying to engage the U.S. won out,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “There wasn’t going to be any major new administration initiative toward Iran without this case resolved.”

Saberi, 32, who has lived in Iran since 2003 and worked as a freelance reporter for National Public Radio and the BBC, was reunited with her parents and will return to the United States in the coming days, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said to reporters in Washington. She had originally been arrested for buying a bottle of wine, which is illegal in Iran. The charges were later elevated to working without a press credential and espionage.

“We continue to take issue with the charges against her and the verdicts rendered, but we are very heartened that she has been released,” said Clinton, who had called for Saberi’s release.

Saberi’s father, Reza Saberi, who lives in Fargo, N.D., but was born in Iran, told reporters outside his family home here that his daughter was “exhausted but in good condition.”

Saberi did not talk to reporters after leaving Evin prison, which is known for housing political prisoners. She had gone on a hunger strike while in jail, but ended it after two weeks because of health problems.

U.S. officials and outside analysts believe Saberi’s arrest was politically motivated, at a time when the Obama administration is reaching out to Iran after nearly three decades of hostility.