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August 25, 2011

Iran Factions Use Hikers for Own Political Games

If previous Iranian government behavior is any indication, the 8 year sentence handed down this past weekend against the two American hikers, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, is by no means the final word.  The Iranian government has always sought more tactical flexibility and uses situations such as this to leverage its opponents.  But in addition to the continued U.S.-Iran standoff, the hikers have also fallen prey to political infighting in Tehran that creates the biggest obstacle to clarity.  Their sentence is the latest installment in a series of political football matches between the various factions inside of Iran.
Recall that it was last September when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, attempting to score points for himself just weeks before coming to New York to address the UN General Assembly, announced an imminent release for the third hiker, Sara Shourd.  But Ahmadinejad’s political opponents in the Judiciary attempted to block the initiative and prevent any corresponding political capital Ahmadinejad hoped to gain.  They cancelled Shourd’s release and ultimately required her to post bail of $500,000 before she was finally released on September 14th.
In a case of déjà vu with Fattal and Bauer, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (appointed by Ahmadinejad) suggested the trial would lead to their freedom.  But this past weekend, we saw a completely different result.
Now, Fattal and Bauer will continue to languish in Evin Prison instead of being reunited with their families.  You can take action to send a letter calling for their release through Amnesty International’s website.
In a radio interview with Anti-War.com, NIAC’s  Reza Marashi explained, “It’s a puzzle to me what Iran’s trying to achieve.”  But he also said there remains a glimmer of hope that the Supreme Leader would issue  an edict releasing the hikers.  It could be a way to save face, by showing leniency in the holy month of Ramadan.  This way they “won’t have to come up with a nonsensical justification for keeping them in prison,” Marashi said.
As Wednesday’s New York Times editorial put it, “There is no legitimate excuse not to (let them go). Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal should be freed immediately.”
But in addition the murky internal political dynamic, this situation is endemic to the conflict between the US and Iran.  As Marashi points out, “If relations had been halfway normal this would have been resolved far earlier.”  Without diplomatic relations, there are few levers for the U.S. to pull.
Unfortunately, due to a deeply seeded culture of mistrust on both sides, the US and Iran have framed their relationship as a zero-sum game. Thus, if one side gains then by nature the other side loses.  It’s easy to envision how a stalemate can develop as neither side is willing to bargain or negotiate.  So, situations like we see with the hikers become more “complex, even though (the solution) is straight forward.”

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