American hiker Sarah Shourd was released by Iran today after more than 13 months in prison. Her release, delayed by apparent political wrangling behind the scenes, is the latest twist of an internal power struggle inside Iran that comes just days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travels to the US.
Ms. Shourd and her companions, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, were arrested in July 2009 for allegedly crossing into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq. The Islamic Republic has since accused the trio of spying, with Iranian prosecutors saying they had “compelling evidence” of links to US intelligence agencies.
State-run PressTV reported that Shourd had been handed over to the Swiss Embassy, whose diplomats look after US interests in Iran, after it provided a bank guarantee for $500,000 bail. Tehran's prosecutor general, Abbas Jafar Dolatabadi, told PressTV that the bail was deposited in an Iranian bank in Oman and Shourd “was set free and she can leave Iran.”
News reports said she departed Iran on a chartered plane for Oman, where family was waiting.
For her, it's the beginning of the end of a saga, though the detentions of Mr. Bauer – her fiancé – and Mr. Fattal have been extended for two months, and Mr. Dolatabadi said all three would still have to stand trial for espionage.
But for Mr. Ahmadinejad, it's just one more chapter in the power struggle that's been unfolding for months below the surface in Iran. His attempt to orchestrate Shourd's release as a "gift" ahead of his trip next week to the United Nations riled conservatives in Iran's judiciary, who made it clear that Shourd would be released only on their terms.
“Ahmadinejad does interfere in the work [of the judiciary and parliament], he comes and announces this woman will be released, and it’s not his job to do that,” says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
“That problem is related to the fact that Ahmadinejad announced it first, in order to put himself across as a good candidate for talks with the United States. He wanted to say he did it,” she adds. “But the judiciary wants to say, 'It has nothing to do with you, shut up and be quiet, it’s our affair.' ”
Mad that Ahmadinejad stole the show?
Shourd’s freedom had originally been slated to begin Saturday, in an act portrayed by some officials as an act of clemency after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The sudden announcement came via text message to journalists in Tehran from the Islamic Guidance Ministry. At first, it was to take place at the same north Tehran hotel where the three were allowed to meet with their mothers last May.
But then news spread that the release of the American was thanks to the intervention of Ahmadinejad, and that a larger venue – the presidential palace – had been chosen for the event. Reports from inside Iran suggested that the release was taking on greater pro-Ahmadinejad political significance, at a time when Iran is under immense pressure and sanctions from the West over its nuclear policies, the stoning execution of a woman, and other issues.
At that point, Iran’s judiciary – run by fellow conservatives often critical of Ahmadinejad, in Tehran’s myriad right-wing turf wars – delayed the release, stating that legal hurdles remained, even though analysts believe the regime had already intended to release her.
“The establishment had decided to release her anyway, [but] it’s yet another occasion of how single-minded Ahmadinejad is, that he always takes the show for himself, and that he doesn’t listen to anyone,” says Ms. Torfeh.
What will happen to Bauer, Fattal?
Torfeh says that it is likely that only one hostage was released because Iran is trying to maximize the bargaining value of each one. She suggests that Shourd’s release – at least in the eyes of some Iranian officials – may have been a quid pro quo for the return in July of Iranian nuclear scientist and apparent defector Shahram Amiri, who had settled in the US.
“That’s the way Iranian hostage-taking has always been,” says Torfeh. “So I would think [Iranian officials] have a couple more demands to make for the other two to be released…. I don’t know what their other demands might be, or who else or what else they might be asking for, but I’m sure [Bauer and Fattal] will only be released when we see some other gestures from the West, from America in fact.”
Mr. Dolatabadi said that the files for Bauer and Fattal had now been sent to a Revolutionary Court that “handles espionage cases.”
Iran undercuts its own claims of espionage
In a rare commentary, however, elements of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard used the Fars News Agency – with which it has close ties – to point out that Iran's release of Shourd has undercut its claims that she and her companions were working for US intelligence agencies.
“If they were spies – as the Intelligence Ministry has said – why should they receive clemency and escape Islamic justice?” the commentary asked in Farsi, as translated by the Associated Press. If Shourd were to “jump out” of prison, it said, there would be “no result except discrediting security and intelligence agencies as well as the judiciary.”
Also critical was Ahmad Tavakoli, a conservative senior member of parliament and foe of the president. He said a release would be a “bonus for Quran burners” in America that was undeserved.
“The release of an American woman in the context of intensifying sanctions and threats against Iran is not right,” said Mr. Tavakoli.
In that sense, Shourd’s release Tuesday may have been seen by the president as a partial victory over such opponents.
“I think in his mind he [won], to be the topic of the day and to be able to play both stories of, ‘We caught spies,’ and ‘We are kind,’ when in New York,” says an Iranian analyst in the United Kingdom who recently left the country and could not be named.
Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei “has told Ahmadinejad not to talk to the US, but he can’t stop the US from talking to him, right?” says the analyst.