After Sarah Shourd's release, questions over the other US hikers

American hiker Sarah Shourd has been reunited with her family, but questions remain over the two Americans still in Iranian custody.

By , Staff writer

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    Sarah Shourd, right, embraces her mother Nora Shourd, left, on Sarah Shourd's arrival at the royal airport in Muscat, Oman, Tuesday, Sept. 14.
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Sarah Shourd ended 13 months in detention in Iran's notorious Evin Prison Tuesday and today was with her mother in Oman awaiting a flight to take her back to the US.

But the fate of the two other US hikers seized along with Ms. Shourd near the Iraqi-Iranian border in July 2009 remains uncertain.

The Twitter feed of State Department Spokesman PJ Crowley issued a challenge to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shortly after the release, with a post that said: "President Ahmadinejad, want to show goodwill to the American people? Bring Shane Bauer & Josh Fattal home next week when you visit the UN."

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But the Shourd case demonstrates that the decision is far from Mr. Ahmadinejad's alone.

The on-again, off-again nature of her release – Ahmadinejad's announcement, followed by a demand for "bail" that was viewed internationally as a ransom request, and the release two days later by the judiciary, not the president – spotlighted the divisions between Ahmadinejad and other members of the conservative political and religious establishment, as the Monitor's Scott Peterson reported Tuesday.

In particular, Ahmadinejad's effort to present himself as orchestrating the release as a "gift" to the American people infuriated members of the conservative judiciary, who signaled his hand isn't as free as he likes to present by causing the delay. The judiciary later ordered the release.

Pleas for hikers' release

The mothers of Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal appeared Wednesday on CNN to urge Iran to release the young men, even as Iran said it will quickly move forward with espionage trials against them. "We're so happy Sarah's home," Laura Fattal told CNN. "But it's our turn to have our kids back with us."

Iranian prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said that a trial for all three hikers will be arranged "soon" and ruled out pre-trial release for Bauer and Fattal, according to the government's official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA). Iran continues to insist all three were spies.

Checks on Ahmadinejad's power

Gary Sick, an adjunct professor of international affairs at Columbia University in New York and the chief White House liaison on Iran during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent US embassy hostage crisis, writes that the condition surrounding Shourd's release points to growing complications for Ahmadinejad at home, and for the American engagement with Iran more generally.

"Ahmadinejad is coming to New York for his annual media circus at the UN General Assembly. He usually pulls off some stunt just before he arrives, thereby giving himself a blaze of media attention and perhaps arming him with a talking point about Iran’s 'humane' behavior," Dr. Sick wrote in a blog post (which has excellent detail on the jockeying within the Iranian establishment).

"But things don’t always work as planned. Ahmadinejad planned the release as a great photo op ... but the judiciary squelched that, claiming that the judicial process had not been properly followed, i.e. the evidence had not been presented to a judge and no court had ruled on the case. Two days later, the judiciary (run by one of Ahmadinejad’s rivals) announced that she would be released, but on a different day, without publicity, not at the presidential palace, and upon payment of bail – really a ransom – of half a million dollars. Of course, the evidence still has not been presented to a judge and no court has made a ruling. But the president was put in his place."

Sick argues that political competition within Iran – and Ahmadinejad's alliance with the reactionary Revolutionary Guard as he seeks to craft a presidency as strong or stronger than Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – will complicate any gestures of compromise over the nuclear program, and says the tiff over Shourd's release is evidence of that.

Could Ahmadinejad arrange for Bauer's and Fattal's release in time for his visit, and does he really want to? Those remain open questions.

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