What’s it like to become a pawn of foreign policy? The three American hikers being held in Tehran’s Evin prison have now had a full year to ponder this nightmare.
Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal could be you. Okay, a tad more adventurous, perhaps. They were hiking toward a famed waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the border with Iran, when they either inadvertently crossed the unmarked border or, as reported in The Nation, were grabbed and taken across by Iranian soldiers spotting likely targets, and accused of being spies.
In fact what the three stumbled into was not just Iran itself, but the absurd stand-off that is US-Iran ‘relations.’ There was never any issue of Iran really thinking they were spies. As the Free The Hikers website notes, the three have “a documented record as advocates of social and environmental justice. They admire and respect different cultures and religions, and share a love of travel that has taken them to many countries. That is why they went to Kurdistan, not because they wanted to enter Iran.”
Their crime was not that they went hiking near the border with Iran; it was that they went hiking there just as the US began taking an increasingly hard line toward Iran — one that inevitably involved victimizing the three hikers once they were taken captive.
At least they have now been formally charged — with illegal border crossing, a penalty demanding a cash fine under Iranian law, not over a year in prison. In that year, their families have been allowed to see them precisely once; they have had no access to their Iranian lawyer; and — particularly cruel and unusual punishment — Sarah Shourd has been kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. All three are essentially being held hostage to America’s increasingly hardline policy toward Iran, which now includes more severe economic sanctions.
This coming weekend, there’ll be ‘Free the Hikers’ events — rallies and hikes — all over the United States. But who will the rallyers be appealing to? Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, of course, since releasing the hikers is theirs to do. But this nightmare took two countries to create, and will take two countries to end.
Ransoming prisoners has been a feature of Middle East politics for as long as historical records exist. Right now, the Israeli government is giving in to public pressure and finally negotiating through third parties with its sworn enemy Hamas in Gaza to release Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit from years of captivity. (Last I heard, they were willing to release 100 prisoners for Shalit, but were stalled over the hundred and first: Marwan Barghouti, the one man who stands a chance of being an effective Palestinian leader who could lead his people toward a two-state solution). I suspect — and certainly hope — that similar negotiations are going on behind the scenes between the United States and Iran. But I also suspect that a successful resolution to the hikers’ nightmare is being held up by just one or two ‘high-value’ Iranian prisoners whom the United States refuses to release.
‘High value’ indeed. The United States has done plenty of prisoner exchanges before. Are the White House and State Department saying that Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal aren’t worth it?
It’s unclear that Iran ever wanted this whole situation any more than did the United States (The Nation reported that the officer in charge of the unit that took the hikers prisoner may since have been tried and executed.) But now Iran needs to save face. Of course it should release Shane, Sarah, and Josh no matter what, but between ‘should’ and ‘will’ is the realm not of justice, but of foreign policy. If Iran needs to find a face-saving way to free the hikers, that’s fine by me. The United States should flex its mind instead of its muscle and do its damnedest to provide one.