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Harsh sentence for US hikers could spell trouble for Iran's Ahmadinejad

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had pressed for a lighter sentence for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. The eight-year prison terms they received are seen as a slight by the judiciary.

By Roshanak TaghaviCorrespondent / August 22, 2011

In this Feb. 6 file photo, US hikers Shane Bauer (l.) and Josh Fattal, attend their trial at the Tehran Revolutionary Court, in Iran. The website of Iran's state TV reported Saturday, Aug. 20, that the two US hikers held in Iran have been sentenced to eight-years in jail each.

Press TV/AP

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A day after two American hikers received an eight-year jail sentence for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Iran and spying for the United States, it appears the men may now be victims of Iran’s internal political tensions.

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Iran has held Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal in prison for more than two years. In the weeks leading up to their sentencing, senior Iranian officials close to the president made comments to local media outlets that fueled speculation that the two men would likely be released. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had himself urged the court to make a light ruling.

Within the world of Iranian politics, however, a lighter sentence would have created the impression that the judiciary had caved to political pressure from the Ahmadinejad administration.

Thus, the court’s reversal appears to represent more of a message to the president that the court acts independently of his desires and policy objectives than an affirmation of the two men’s guilt, according to analysts inside the Islamic republic.

Coming amid increasing frustration throughout the Iranian government that Mr. Ahmadinejad has overstepped the bounds of his position, the sentencing is also likely designed as a check to the president’s power.

“The judiciary doesn’t want to hand the government any victories or to be dictated to by the government,” says an analyst speaking by phone from Tehran on condition of anonymity.

For the past six years, Ahmadinejad has successfully appointed political allies to senior positions within a number of state institutions and fired those who oppose his policies. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all government matters, has tacitly approved the Ahmadinejad government's extension of power at the expense of Iran's judiciary and legislature, stepping in only when the president was perceived as having gone too far.

In large part, the president has been engaged in a power struggle to carve out a permanent power base that will endure even after his presidential term ends in 2013. Iran does not have a system of strong political parties and the influence of the president typically ends when his term his over.

As a result, Ahmadinejad has worked to consolidate power in the executive branch – often at the expense of the parliament and judicial branch – and has worked hard to place his political allies in positions of influence.

In May, Ahmadinejad received a rare but significant rebuke from Ayatollah Khamenei, after unilaterally firing intelligence chief Heydar Moslehi without consulting the supreme leader.

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