American Hikers in Iran Are Too Useful to Release

December 17, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

William O. Beeman, Commentary, New America Media

NAM Editor’s Note: American hikers Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd are a precious catch for Iran, which is hoping to get some political mileage from their detention, observes NAM contributor William Beeman. Bauer freelanced for NAM.

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Three Americans, journalist Shane Bauer, 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 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 11 Iranians that have been held by U.S. federal officials, as reported by Laura Rozen in the blog, Politico . These individuals are charged with violating export laws — essentially by supplying arms and military equipment to Iran. They were arrested in several European countries, and have been held incognito and incommunicado for more than a year in some cases. The Iranians certainly hope to see movement on releasing these detainees.

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 (s), murdered 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 is 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 weapons program remains a red herring, preventing any real progress in reaching an 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 Association. 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).

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Mothers of Captured Young Hikers Encouraged

October 22, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Mary Ambrose

 

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Reporter Shane Bauer

The wait for the release of three young Americans arrested on July 31 for allegedly crossing the border illegally into Iran continues, but their families hope they have made some progress towards bringing them home.

On Friday, Nora Shroud, Laura Fattal and Cindy Hickey, the mothers of Sarah Shroud, Josh Fattal, and Shane Bauer, met in New York City to deliver a petition to the Iranian trade mission. The 2,500 signatures and appeals were collected at the families’ site, Free The Hikers, and at vigils held across the country. They all want the same thing: release the hikers from jail and allow them to leave Iran.

The trade mission accepted the petition, which the women viewed as a good sign, as were encouraging noises from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but they want action.

About a month ago, a Swiss diplomat was granted the first consular access visit to the hikers. Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Tehran, since the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. The diplomat phoned the parents and reported that their children were in good shape. The diplomat gave them chocolate and assured each of them that their companions were well. It’s assumed they are not being held together.

It’s been three weeks since Ahmadinejad said that the hikers entered the country illegally, which he noted was “considered a crime everywhere,” and despite insisting he has no control over the judiciary or the case, he told the Associated Press that he could ask that “the judiciary expedite the process and give it its full attention … and basically look at the case with maximum leniency.” The families want him to deliver on that promise.

Laura Fattal said they see this as a humanitarian issue and on CNN said she thinks that as a father, Ahmadinejad can “easily imagine how difficult it is for the families of the hikers.”

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Journalist Shane Bauer Detained in Iran

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Aaron Glantz, NAM

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New America Media correspondent Shane Bauer is among three Americans detained over the weekend along the Iranian-Iraq border, along with his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

Bauer, 27, who grew up in Onamia, Minn, had filed more than two dozen stories for NAM from Syria and was in Northern Iraq to cover the Kurdish elections, said NAM Executive Editor Sandy Close.

“We were awaiting his coverage when we learned that he and his girlfriend, and another friend, had been arrested by Iranian authorities,” she said.

A freelance journalist and fluent Arabic speaker, Bauer has contributed to numerous other publications including the Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

“Shane’s dispatches have been enlightening,” Close said. “His fluency in Arabic and his writing and photography skills enabled him to provide a valuable lens into what ordinary people are thinking and saying in the Arab world. We consider Shane to be a gifted young correspondent who typifies the long tradition of journalism by the student-traveler learning the craft by doing.”

At Iran’s Mission to the United Nation’s in New York, spokesperson Mohammed Sahraei refused to elaborate on official state media reports which had referred to Bauer and his fellow travelers as “infiltrators.”

Iranian state television reported on Sunday that the head of the Iranian Parliament’s foreign policy committee Alaedddin Boroujerdi said, “This case is currently on its natural course.”

Their detention has quickly become international news.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to Iran for information, saying U.S. the interests in Iran are asking officials from the Iranian Foreign Ministry for details but have not yet gotten official confirmation of the trio’s arrest. She asked that Iran determine the facts of the case and to “return them as quickly as possible.”

“As of a few hours ago, we did not yet have official confirmation that the Iranian government or an instrument of the Iranian government were holding the three missing Americans,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department. “We asked our Swiss partners … to please pursue our inquiries to determine the status of the three missing Americans.”

“Obviously, we are concerned,” Clinton said. “We want this matter brought to a resolution as soon as possible and we call on the Iranian government to help us determine the whereabouts of the three missing Americans and return them as quickly as possible.”

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it appeared that the Americans were “targeted for being reporters” and that they were walking along the border because they were backpacking along the mountains that mark the border between Iran and Iraq, “for purely recreational purposes.”

“It’s possible that they walking back and forth the border numerous times without ever knowing it,” said CPJ’s Mohmmed Abdel Dayem. “We hope that it is a routine thing. We assume the best.”

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