Wednesday, August 03, 2011

William O. Beeman--Hikers in Iran--Caught in Web of International Politics

Hikers In Iran - Caught in Web of International Poltics

New America Media, Commentary, William O. Beeman, Posted: Aug 03, 2011

Editor’s Note: Two young American hikers have been held as “spies” longer than other foreign nationals there. Will Ramadhan help free them from the perfect web of politics?

American Journalist Shane Bauer and his traveling companion Josh Fattal have been incarcerated in Iran for two years—longer than any other international detainee in the Islamic Republic. There is some hope that they may be released soon.

The month of fasting and prayer—Ramadhan—is now upon us. It is also traditionally a time for forgiveness and clemency, providing a suitable occasion for the Iranian judiciary to let them return home.

Unprecedented Incarceration

The length of their detainment without trial is unprecedented for foreign nationals in Iran, and it has been a puzzle for many as to why they have been held so long.

Past detainees have been held for a few months, sometimes made to “confess” their crimes and released in a show of mercy after all propaganda value had been drained from their cases. Although no answer can be definitive in Bauer and Fattal’s situation, a good guess is that they have been the victims of both internal and international politics.

The two men along with their companion, Sarah Shourd, who was released last year on compassionate medical grounds, were charged with crossing the Iranian border from Iraq without proper documentation. Subsequently they were accused of spying for the United States. Americans have found these charges to lack credibility. However, to take the accusations at face value is to miss the point of their issuance.

Iranian officials know absolutely that there are American operatives in Iran, as well as operatives from Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. If they didn’t know it, they can only look to the public statements of President George W. Bush, who declared as much. Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered in Iran; most recently Dariush Rezai, was shot to death on a Tehran street on July 23.
Moreover, Iranians know that the border in Kurdistan over which Bauer, Fattal and Shourd traveled--a popular tourists’ trek—has also been a route for infiltration of spies since the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003. They also know that Israel has been courting the Kurds for many years. Iranian Jews, residents in Israel with perfect language and cultural skills, are perfect spies.

“Spies” Like--Some

Thus, the message Iran is trying to send the United States and the world is not that Bauer, Fattal and Shourd are spies, but rather that Iran knows spies are in their country, that these spies are supported by the United States and Israel, and that the spies have entered the country via the route the three hikers took. A show trial is a way to point up these basic facts.

The Iranians were probably also hoping that the three Americans might serve as coins to use in its negotiation with the United States to release a number of Iranians, who had been arrested in Europe for violating trade sanctions--and who seem to be held in secret under U.S. authority.

Such a trial might have taken place in 2009, when the three friends were first detained. However, Iran exploded in political turmoil that year. The presidential election that July turned into a gigantic public protest against President Ahmadinejad and Spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i. In the face of this political upheaval, conducting a show trial of American citizens was not only inconvenient, it threatened to make the government look even worse in the eyes of the world.

Since the government was blaming the United States for the political uprising, to release the hikers would have been seen as capitulating to the forces that Ahmadinejad and Khamene’i claimed were trying to overthrow them.

Internal Iranian politics got worse over the following year. Open rivalry between Ahmadinejad and Khamene’i dominated Iranian politics. The judiciary, under the direction of Khamene’I, may have found it inconvenient to take a line that would seem to be soft on the United States.

Obama Adopts Bush Accusations

Furthermore, in recent months the United States has made things much worse.

The Obama administration has once again returned to three tired accusations that were promulgated by the George W. Bush administration as a way to build support for a possible attack against Iran. These include concerns over Iran’s nuclear program; accusations that Iran was aiding militias in Iraq, who were attacking American troops; and that Iran was aiding al-Qaeda.

All of these claims are very old—and are as insubstantial and specious as they were when first put forward in 2003. One may choose to believe them or not, but it is certain that their reiteration by the Obama administration has not made it any easier for the Iranian government to show clemency toward Bauer and Fattal.

For their sake and the sake of their families and friends one can only hope that the occasion of Ramadhan with its salutary sentiments and message of forgiveness will result in the release of these two young men, who appear not to have deserved their fate.

William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of Anthropology and specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota, formerly of Brown University.