William O. Beeman
Three Americans, journalist Shane Bauer and his companions, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd have been detained in Iran since July 31, 2009 for entering the Islamic Republic from Iraq at a remote mountain border without visas. Now Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manoucher Mottaki has announced that they will be tried in Iranian Courts. It is likely they will be charged with espionage.
The three Americans appear to have strayed innocently into Iranian territory, but they have provided an unusually strong opportunity for the Iranian government to continue to engage the United States in tit-for-tat attacks.
Superficially, the detention and eventual trial of these three individuals resembles the earlier detention of a number of Iranian-Americans traveling in Iran, the most recent being journalist Roxana Saberi, who was released last summer after having been charged with espionage. Iranian-American academic Kian Tajbakhsh remains in custody facing a 12 year jail sentence after his espionage conviction.
The case against Shane Bauer and his friends provides many political advantages to the Iranian government.
First, there can be no question that people who stray over international borders without proper documentation are subject to scrutiny and legal action. Here the Iranians have an open and shut justification for holding the three hikers, and can claim indisputable high legal ground for their actions.
Second, Iran wants to make the point that foreign spies are operating in its sovereign territory. The United States has admitted to maintaining operatives in Iran, as has Israel. Israel has even bragged about assassinating an Iranian nuclear scientist. Thus, although the three Americans are probably not spies, they serve as reminders to the Iranian public and to the international community of the real spies that Iranian authorities have not caught.
Third, Iran has reportedly linked the American detainees to eleven Iranians that have been held by U.S. Federal officials as reported by Laura Rozen in the blog, Politico
Iran also charges the United States with engineering the disappearance of nuclear researcher Shahram Amiri during his pilgrimage to Mecca last spring.
Finally, the Iranian government is desperate for a distraction from the unprecedented opposition disturbances in protest of the June 12 presidential elections. December 18 marks the beginning of the month of Muharram, when Shi’a Muslims commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, murdered by the Umayyid Sunni dynasty in 680 C.E. There will be street processions, religious demonstrations and ritual mourning for 10 days. This is the perfect smokescreen for anti-government demonstrations.
To add to the government consternation, sections of the regular Iranian military have threatened to emerge from their barracks to protect “the people” from the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and Basij units that have been attacking the anti-government opposition. A big show trial against “foreign spies” will reinforce the Iranian government claims to its own citizenry that all the troubles in the Islamic Republic today are being fomented by foreign agents.
It clear that both the United States and Iran have a lot of human traffic to account for on each others’ soil. The real impediment to sorting out these matters is that the United States and Iran still have no comprehensive way to talk to each other. Moreover, there is too much to be gained in both nations by mutual demonization to move forward toward rational discussion. Iran’s non-existent nuclear program remains a red-herring preventing any real progress in reaching accord between the two nations.
For the hapless hikers, the worst case scenario is one where they get caught up in the maelstrom of events that have nothing to do with their meager crime, and end up as object lessons in the mutual hostilities between Iran and the West.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and is Past-President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Assocation. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (Chicago, 2008).