Monday, November 09, 2009

Iran Charges 3 American Hikers With Espionage (with note by William O. Beeman)

Iran Charges 3 American Hikers With Espionage

Published: November 9, 2009

Note by William O. Beeman: There is a danger in being too sanguine about the situation of the three hikers (including photojournalist Shane Bauer) who transgressed the Iranian border and were today charged with spying in Iran. However, this follows the same pattern that has been seen now six or seven times. Someone is involved with a minor infraction, or just heightened suspicion. The Iranian government charges them with spying to squeeze the greatest possible propaganda value from the situation. The alleged spies are generally treated humanely and undergo a show trial, and are usually released, or allowed to depart after having posted bail as a sign of Iranian humanitarian generosity. If past experience is any predictor, this is how this situation will play out as well.

The spying charges become believable to a domestic Iranian audience because of the consistent pattern of past interference by the United States in Iranian affairs, and George W. Bush's flat statement that we have agents operating in Iran--something the Iranians absolutely know to be true. Iran is of course trying to make a point to the external world as well--stop spying on us!

We have two new stars at the State Department in Washington--John Limbert (Iran) and Tamara Wittes (Near East), both of whom have superb credentials on Iran. They will have to deal with this. The situation is also variable due to the ongoing nuclear negotiations. One can bet that these three detainees are being presented as chips in the negotiations--or possible signs of "good faith." The three hikers were caught in Iranian territory without visas or documentation. The United States treats similar infractions with utmost harshness, so we have very little to say on this matter from a legal standpoint. Asking for clemency is really the proper way to go, though it is going to stick in the craw of many right-wingers. Certainly condemning the Iranian government is foolish. The United States doesn't have a leg to stand on here.

The case of Iranian-American Kian Tajbakhsh, also charged with spying in Iran, is linked with this case as well.

Three American hikers who were arrested in Iran this summer after straying across its border with Iraq have been charged with spying, an Iranian state news agency reported on Monday.

The Tehran prosecutor told Iran’s official IRNA news agency that Iranian officials were pursuing espionage charges against the Americans, who were detained in late July after trekking through the Kurdistan region of Iraq and toward the Iranian border.

News of the charges drew a quick rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who reiterated calls for the Iranians to release the hikers, Shane M. Bauer of Emeryville, Calif.; Joshua F. Fattal of Cottage Grove, Ore.; and Sarah E. Shourd of Oakland, Calif.

“We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever,” she told reporters in Berlin, according to The Associated Press. “And we would renew our request on behalf of these three young people and their families that the Iranian government exercise compassion and release them so they can return home.”

The spectacle of three American tourists on trial in Iran could add more strain to relations between Iran the United States at a time when the countries are engaged in fraught negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. The United States has been pursuing the release of the hikers through Swiss diplomats who represent American interests in Tehran. The United States severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 takeover of its embassy in Tehran.

There was no immediate comment from family members or friends of the Americans.

Statements from family members and Kurdish authorities have said that the three travelers, all graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, had crossed from Turkey into Kurdistan, where they stayed at a hostel and camped as they headed toward Ahmed Awa, a resort area of caves and waterfalls on the border.

A statement on a Web site set up for the hikers,, makes a plea for their release: “We hope the Iranian authorities understand that if our children and friends did happen to enter Iran, there can only be one reason: because they made a regrettable mistake and got lost.”

Jack Healy reported from New York, and Nazila Fathi from Toronto.