TEHRAN, Iran ó The release of two American hikers convicted of spying in Iran ended an international drama involving longtime foes, but was also emblematic of the infighting among Tehran’s ruling elite that has led to questions about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grip on power. PHOTO: American hikers Shane Bauer (right) and Josh Fattal talk to the press as they arrive to Muscat airport in Oman on September 21, 2011, after nearly two years spent in Iran under the accusation of spying.|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Ramin Mostaghim, Los Angeles Times
TEHRAN, Iran ó The release of two American hikers convicted of spying in Iran ended an international drama involving longtime foes, but was also emblematic of the infighting among Tehran’s ruling elite that has led to questions about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grip on power.
Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 29-year-old graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, were released Wednesday from Tehran’s Evin Prison on a combined bail of $1 million. The Americans were handed over to the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S.
(PHOTO: American hikers Shane Bauer (right) and Josh Fattal talk to the press as they arrive to Muscat airport in Oman on September 21, 2011, after nearly two years spent in Iran under the accusation of spying.)
interests in Iran, and were flown the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, a Washington ally that posted the bail and helped negotiate their release.
The young men joined their families in the Omani capital, Muscat, where an official said they would spend two days before heading home.
Also greeting them was Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with the pair in 2009, but released on bail on medical grounds. Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd, who lives in Oakland, Calif., while in prison.
“Today can only be described as the best day of our lives,” said a statement released by the families of the two men. “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds.”
In a White House statement, President Barack Obama thanked officials of Oman, Iraq and Switzerland for their work leading to the release of the two men.
“We’re thrilled that the hikers were released,” Obama added in comments to reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the periphery of the U.N. General Assembly’s new session. “We’re thrilled for their families. It was the right thing to do. They shouldn’t have been held in the first place.”
Ahmadinejad raised expectations last week by announcing the two men would be freed in a humanitarian gesture. But their fate quickly became ensnared in the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the nation’s conservative judiciary, which rebuked the president by delaying its decision on bail.
The court’s announcement Tuesday was curt: “They are bailed out.”
Ahmadinejad was not “supposed to have a say in releasing the U.S. hikers,” said Farid Modarresi, a political analyst in Tehran. “But he sold the news to the foreign media to promote his own” image before his arrival in New York on Tuesday for the General Assembly session.
A populist who has exasperated the West for years, Ahmadinejad has been under increasing pressure at home after falling out of favor with the judiciary and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader backed the president two years ago against demonstrators who accused him of winning re-election by fraud. The protest movement, which backed two reform-minded candidates, was crushed by a campaign of arrests and violence.
But Ahmadinejad has angered Khamenei by his attempts to consolidate power and weaken the authority of the nation’s clerics. Now halfway through his second and final term, he is viewed by many key hard-liners as a diminished force.
The saga of Ahmadinejad and the American hikers also became part of the larger narrative of mistrust between Tehran and Washington over Iran’s nuclear program, its threats against Israel and its influence in Iraq, Syria and other nations that runs counter to U.S. interests. Some analysts suggest Ahmadinejad promised the release of Bauer and Fattal to polish his global standing, hoping that would help sway voters toward his candidates in Iran’s parliamentary elections in March.
Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were arrested in 2009 while backpacking along the Iran-Iraq border and were accused of espionage. They denied the charge, saying they mistakenly wandered into Iran from the rugged Kurdish region of Iraq. The United States, which has no formal diplomatic ties with Iran, appealed for their release through the Swiss Embassy. During the trial, Iran never publicly disclosed evidence that the men were spies.
Shourd was released last year on medical grounds on $500,000 bail, which was also posted by Oman. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota; Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia. The two men last saw family members in May 2010 when their mothers visited them in Tehran.
“We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us,” said the statement from the two men’s families.
Their case resembled that of freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American convicted of spying. She was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and allowed her return to the U.S. in 2009.
Last year, Reza Taghavi, an Iranian-American businessman, was freed from jail after being held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing in the southern city of Shiraz that killed 14 people. He denied any role in the attack.
(Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.)
©2011 the Los Angeles Times|