Hikers and other alleged spies: which Americans travel to Iran, and why
Iran state media reported Thursday that an American in Iran was detained for having espionage equipment in her mouth. For Americans – be they hikers or businessmen – Iran can be a forbidding destination if the visitors are perceived as potential spies.
The curious case reported by Iranian state media Thursday of an American woman with espionage equipment planted in her mouth being detained by Iranian authorities sounds like the stuff of a John le Carré novel.Skip to next paragraph
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But with cases of Americans detained or even disappearing in Iran periodically surging into the news, questions of a more mundane nature arise, like: How many Americans even go to Iran, and, what are conditions for those who do?
The short answers appear to be: not many; and not great – other than for those very few Americans who travel to Iran on a visa as journalists or academics.
President Obama may have spoken eloquently in his Norooz (Persian New Year) message to Iranians of increased exchange between Iranians and Americans, but in reality both governments are acting to make that unlikely any time soon.
With the Iranian government under increased economic and political pressure and dealing with growing rifts even within the regime, some Iran experts say any Americans traveling there are susceptible to being used as diversions for taking public attention off the internal problems.
“For Americans to go to Iran for whatever reason is a very risky endeavor,” says Ali Safavi, president of Near East Policy Research, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va., and a figure in the exiled Iranian opposition. “As the regime has weakened and faced mounting problems in recent years, it has liked nothing better than to seize foreigners and make them pawns in an effort to divert attention from its ebbing standing in the country.”
The Iranian regime “was born taking hostages,” Mr. Safavi says, pointing to the holding of US diplomats as hostages after the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed in 1979. “They have used foreigners as bargaining chips with the West ever since.”
The case of what Iran says is an American woman with a camera imbedded in her teeth takes place as Iranian officials continue to detain two American citizens, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who were arrested in July 2009 after they crossed over the border into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. The two men say they were hiking and strayed across the unmarked border – Iraqi Kurdistan is an increasingly popular destination for adventurous Americans – while Iraqi officials charged them with spying.
A more mysterious case is that of American Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who disappeared in March 2007 while on what his family says was a business trip in Iran’s Kish Island, a notorious hub of smuggling and contraband exchange.