Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has announced that two American hikers accused of spying will be released within two days in a “unilateral humanitarian gesture," just days before he heads to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly.
The fate of the arrested Americans has from the start been closely tied to the hostile relationship between the US and Islamic Republic, as well as to Iran’s own turbulent internal politics.
In two separate interviews with US media in Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad said that he was personally trying to arrange the freedom of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who have spent more than two years in Iranian prison.
The two were arrested in late July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd for crossing illegally into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq. Ms. Shourd was released one year ago on “humanitarian” and medical grounds, Iranian officials said at the time, after posting $500,000 bail.
Iran convicted all three of espionage in August, giving eight-year sentences for spying during a closed-door trial in which no evidence was made public. The three accused and their families reject the charges, and say they inadvertently strayed into Iran while hiking along the remote, unmarked border.
Mr. Ahmadinejad told NBC News that he expected an "arrangement" to be made: “I think these two persons will be freed in a couple days.”
Last year, the Iranian president tried to take credit for the release of Ms. Shourd just before his trip to the UN, rankling the judiciary and delaying her freedom by several days. But this year, despite growing opposition from conservative rivals and clerics, Ahmadinejad appears more confident about the release of the two remaining Americans.
“I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home,” Ahmadinejad told the Washington Post. “This is of course going to be a unilateral humanitarian gesture.”
$500,000 bail set for both hikers
The chances of an imminent release appeared bolstered by a report by Iran’s Fars News Agency, which has close links to the Revolutionary Guard. It quoted the lawyer for the three Americans as saying that the Revolutionary Court handling the case had set the bail amount.
“Branch 36 of the revision [appeals] court has consented to release these two American nationals on a bail of half a million dollars,” Fars quoted Masoud Shafaie, the Iranian lawyer for the three, as saying.
“The families of these two Americans and the Swiss Embassy which hosts the US interests section in Tehran have been informed of this issue, and Bauer and Fattal can leave Iran, similar to Sarah Shourd,” Mr. Shafaie was quoted as saying.
Photographs of each of the three Americans – all of them graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, who were traveling and working in the Middle East when they were detained – were published on the Fars website beside images of the seal of the US Department of Defense.
Shafaie told the Associated Press that $500,00 bail was demanded for each of the Americans: “Basically, if they don’t pay their bail, they won’t be freed. I don’t know who arranged this, the court or the president. The judiciary has said that everything is being done according to their procedures.”
Tied to US-Iran relationship
The Americans' arrests took place less than two months after Iran’s controversial June 12, 2009, presidential election, a time when the regime was trying to stamp out weeks of street protests over the fraudulent reelection of Ahmadinejad with thousands of arrests, scores of killings and heavy handed tactics on the streets.
The United States, Britain, and Israel were all blamed by Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and hard-line officials for being behind the violence and attempting to overthrow Iran’s Islamic system. Relations with the US have been cut since Islamic revolutionaries seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Senior Iranian officials have stated explicitly that they have evidence that the three hikers had been in contact with US intelligence and were spies. Some have also criticized the government for considering “humanitarian” releases for any of the three.
The mothers of the three were allowed to visit their imprisoned children briefly in Tehran in May 2010, again officially for humanitarian reasons.
Ahmadinejad faces greater political battles
Conservative critics accused Ahmadinejad last year of trying to take credit for the release of Shourd, just days before he traveled to New York to address the UN. The Iranian president’s effort to engineer a “gift” to the US before his trip angered the Iranian judiciary, which insisted on conducting Shourd’s release according to their rules.
A text message last year alerted journalists in Tehran to the release, at the same hotel where the trio met their mothers months earlier. Then a larger venue was chosen at the presidential palace. At that point the judiciary stepped in, announcing that legal hurdles remained, delaying Shourd’s release.
Last year, Fars News criticized the release: “If they were spies – as the Intelligence Ministry has said – why should they receive clemency and escape Islamic justice?” Fars asked in a Farsi-language commentary. If Shourd were to be set free, as she was, there would be “no result except discrediting security and intelligence agencies as well as the judiciary.”
This year the president has fought significant political battles with Ayatollah Khamenei, elements of the Revolutionary Guard, and critics from his own right wing. But he nonetheless appeared certain that his plans for the hikers' release would not be foiled by political jockeying.
“Yes. In a couple of days” Fattal and Bauer would be released, Ahmadinejad told NBC. “They will be free, but let me ask a question. Are they really the problem? You know how many Iranians are now in the American jails? There are hundreds. It’s not about only two people in Iran.”
Iranian officials had previously stated that 11 Iranians had been held in by US authorities.
“These two people are having the very good conditions here in prison. It’s like staying in a hotel,” said Ahmadinejad. “I think the problem is in the approach of the American politicians and leaders. Why the American leaders are so hostile against us? … These two persons will be released. It is going to be over…. Is it going to solve the problems? I hope so.”