Detained hikers stir memories of Iran hostage crisis

Tehran could attempt to use the Americans as bargaining chips in its bid to build nuclear weapons.

Hadi Mizban/AP
A general view of Dukan Resort, where three American hikers were last seen, near Sulaimaniyah, north east of Baghdad, Iraq. Iranian authorities have given no word on three Americans detained after reportedly wandering across the border of Iraq last week during a hike in the Iraqi Kurdish region.

First, it was two American journalists jailed in North Korea in March and sentenced three months later to 12 years hard labor for crossing the border from China.

Now, three American tourists hiking near a popular waterfall in Iraq's Kurdish north have been detained by Iranian border guards after they wandered into Iran.

The two cases in close succession raise questions of whether the two countries will try to use the Americans as pawns in their standoffs with the international community over their nuclear programs.

Additionally, in the case of Iran, the detention of three Americans risks ratcheting up tensions by rekindling memories of the hostages taken at the US embassy in Tehran during the Iranian revolution 30 years ago.

Indeed, Iranian officials can be expected to weigh what image they want to convey both at home and abroad as they ponder how to deal with the three Americans, experts on Iran say. Do they want to project an image of a strong regime firmly in control of its borders or that of a hostage-taker once again?

"On the one hand we can expect the Iranians will want to use this incident to say "Iran is as strong as ever, we are in control of our borders, and no one should try to mess with us," says Alex Vatanka, an Iran analyst with Jane's Information Group in Alexandria, Va. "That will play well with hardliners domestically, but it will also send a message to the international community not to imagine that Iran is weakened after 50 days of internal unrest over the June elections."

But on the other hand, Mr. Vatanka says the Iranians will also be mindful of the echoes of 1979. "For 30 years, they have been trying to move away from this image of hostage-takers, and if this drags on, that's how the anti-Iran elements in the US are likely to see this."

US officials still have little information on the detention of the three Americans. With no embassy in Tehran, Washington has called on its usual go-between in such matters – the Swiss embassy – to try to get more information. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Monday that Swiss embassy officials have yet to receive confirmation of the three Americans' arrest.

Since the group of four American campers – one did not partake in the hike – were in Iraq's Kurdish region before the detention, the US embassy in Baghdad has also been working with officials in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Kurdish officials earlier identified the three as Joshua Fattal, Sarah Shourd, and Shane Bauer. Mr. Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey of Minnesota, confirmed to the Associated Press that her son is one of the three detained Americans.

Some experts who know the area where the detention took place say it is difficult to imagine that the hikers did not know they were near the Iranian border, since Iran keeps close watch over the area. It is concerned about infiltration in that area by elements of its own Kurdish extremist group.

The Iranian regime is also mindful of clandestine special-operations teams the US is said to have sent to infiltrate Iran. But security experts say that while the Iranians will want to ascertain just who these hikers are, it appears they were indeed just touring and camping in the region.

Jane's Vatanka says the "wild card" in the case could be some lesson the Iranians conclude they can learn from the detention and imprisonment of the two American journalists by North Korea. "If they decide the North Koreans are likely to reap some benefit from holding on to the two Americans," he says, "that could be the worst-case scenario for these three in Iranian custody."

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