Power struggle behind Iran's denial that US hikers will be released soon?

The Iranian judiciary's denial that the detained US hikers were about to be released may reflect a power struggle between President Ahmadinejad and clerics.

Press TV/AP/File
In this Feb. 6 file photo, US hikers Shane Bauer (l.) and Josh Fattal, attend their trial in Iran. Iran's judiciary denies imminent release of the two men, highlighting power struggle with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

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A day after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that the release of the two US hikers held in Iran for more than two years on charges of espionage was "imminent," the country's judiciary denied his statement.

According to Iran's PressTV, the judiciary is still examining pleas by the hikers' lawyers for their release on bail.

The judiciary's contradiction of President Ahmadinejad's announcement stems from his ongoing power struggle with the country's hardline ruling clerics, who control the courts – "a message that only its officials can set the timetables and conditions on any possible release and not the president," according to the Associated Press.

"Information about this case will be provided by the judiciary. Any information supplied by individuals about this is not authoritative," said the judiciary in a statement published in the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency. The move was a "clear jab" at Ahmadinejad, according to the Guardian.

Ahmadinejad vs. the courts

Weeks ago, Ahmadinejad sparred with the courts over the sentencing of the hikers.

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal received eight-year jail sentences in late August, after government officials made comments implying that they would be released soon – and after Ahmadinejad leaned on the court to give them a light sentence, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

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.

Ahmadinejad has been trying to build up a power base that will last beyond the end of his presidency in 2013 by empowering the executive branch, sometimes at the expense of the the parliament and judiciary, and then placing allies in executive branch positions.

"This year the president has fought significant political battles with Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, elements of the Revolutionary Guard, and critics from his own right wing," reports the Monitor's Scott Peterson, who has made more than 30 reporting trips into Iran during the past two decades.

"Those key opponents do not want [Ahmadinejad] to have any victory, of any sort, especially on the international stage," writes Mr. Peterson.

Ahmadinejad's annual 'charm offensive'

The New York Times reports that he likely announced the hikers' "imminent" release as part of what has become an annual event – his media blitz ahead of his yearly trip to the US for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, which opens on Sept. 20 this year. The Monitor describes it as his "annual charm offensive."

The Monitor reported at the time of Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal's sentencing that giving the two a light sentence would have boosted Ahmadinejad's reputation ahead of the UNGA meeting and given him more power at home – and that may be why the judiciary rejected his suggestion.

The same dynamic is likely at play with this conflicting messages about the date of the hikers' release.

The disconnect between the Ahmadinejad administration's public expression of hope for clemency and the harshness of the judiciary's verdict is embarrassing for Ahmadinejad's government in light of the president's upcoming travels to New York, according to domestic analysts.

“It was basically to ensure that Ahmadinejad's government doesn't have anything to use for any sort of [Iran-US] rapprochement," said the Tehran-based analyst speaking on condition of anonymity.

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