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.

By , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.

IN PICTURES: US hikers detained in Iran

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.”

'Bargaining chips'

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 third hiker in the group, Sarah Shourd, was held for over a year until being released in September.

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.

Iranian officials have alternated between promising full reports on Mr. Levinson’s case and professing no knowledge of his whereabouts. In September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told CNN interviewer Larry King that if he wanted to know if Levinson was still alive, “ask that question from the FBI.”

US citizens regularly warned

With such cases as a backdrop – and considering that the US has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1980 – the State Department regularly warns US citizens against traveling to Iran. While such travel is not banned – as is the case with Cuba, for example – the State Department says Americans should “carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran.”

The State Department’s most recent travel warning for Iran was issued in October.

Travel to Iran is considered particularly problematic for Iranian-Americans, who run the risk of being considered spies for the US or agents of the Iranian opposition. State Department officials point to several cases since 2009 of Iranian-American journalists and academics who traveled to Iran for personal or professional reasons (in other words, not political reasons) and were detained or denied departure.

And as Near East Policy’s Safavi notes, Iran does not recognize dual citizenship, so in the regime’s eyes an Iranian-American is just an Iranian, though a suspicious one. “It’s a status that makes you all the more susceptible of being snatched for some trumped-up charge,” he says.

One such case involved Iranian-American Roxana Saberi, a journalist who was convicted in April 2009 of spying for the US – a charge she denied – and sentenced to eight years in prison. But she was released after four months, leading some observers to theorize that she was the beneficiary of a secret prisoner swap involving five Iranians whom the US had been holding in Iraq.

Lopsided student exchange

Still, such high-profile cases have not exactly encouraged a stream of American university students to Tehran. The Institute of International Education, a New York organization that compiles statistics on American students abroad and foreigners studying in the US in its annual Open Doors report, listed one American studying in Iran through a US university program in 2008, and three in 2009. (The statistics do not capture US students who might have arranged on their own to study in Iran).

On the other hand, 4,731 Iranian students were studying in the US last year, a jump by one-third over the year before. Part of the reason for the jump is increased hardship (including the deteriorating political atmosphere) for university students inside Iran.

But that does not mean that students coming to the US leave all hardships behind. The National Iranian American Council points out, for example, that Iranian students are alone among Middle Easterners in being required to come to the US on a single-entry visa.

What that means is that, without a multiple entry visa, they are barred from leaving the US while studying here – even in the case of a family emergency back home, NIAC points out.

Perhaps not as bad as being jailed for a year and a half for wandering across the border, but something NIAC says Obama should fix.

IN PICTURES: US hikers detained in Iran

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