Two young Americans who had been arrested by an Iranian border patrol while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan and who have been held in prison in Iran for more than two years have now been sentenced to eight years in prison for illegal entry and espionage. The third hiker, Sarah Shourd, had been released in September 2010.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 28, were travelling through Iraqi Kurdistan and visited the Ahmed Awa waterfall which is on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border. It is unclear if they accidentally ventured into Iranian territory on their hike or if the Iranian border patrol arrested them in Iraqi territory.
The American hikers are being held at Evin prison in Tehran, where I was imprisoned for one week in the summer of 2009. Because of my own experience, I have special sympathy with Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. Having been to Evin for one week was the toughest experience of my life; I cannot imagine what it must be like to spend two, let alone eight years there.
It is from this perspective and with this background that I want to answer the following questions:
Can they appeal the court ruling?
Yes, they can. But we must not think of this affair as a judicial proceeding. It is labelled a trial, but it isn’t. Iran does not have an independent judiciary, it is not governed by the rule of law and lawyers who stand up for their clients go to jail themselves. Iran is an autocracy in which laws, courts and judges are just another means of oppression.
We also must not think of the Iranian state as a monolithic entity. There are many different factions, some more religious than others, some more radical than others, some might think that a rapprochement with the US and the West in general is a worthwhile goal, others think that America will always be “the Great Satan”. Even experts have therefore been notoriously unable to explain or predict the moves of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Why did Josh and Shane travel to Iraq in the first place? Everyone knows it’s dangerous.
This is the question that drives me crazy. It puts the blame on the victims. The three American hikers had been travelling Northern Iraq which had been absolutely safe and had become a tourist destination. They were going to see a waterfall. There is nothing criminal or wrong about this. The fault lies exclusively with the state that captured and imprisoned them.
Unfortunately, many people are quick to comment who are themselves couch potatoes and whose biggest adventure in live has been a weekend in Las Vegas. These people will never understand that in order to gain a real understanding of the Middle East, one has to travel, experience, speak to people.
I feel very sorry for Josh and Shane not only because of their very long imprisonment, but also because I know from my own experience after my release from Evin prison that 95 % of people will tell them “Why on earth did you go there?” (“there” referring to any part of this world that doesn’t have a McDonald’s or where you have to speak another language). Many will think “You got what you deserved”, and some will even say so. – In my experience, it was actually Iranians who had the most understanding, because they know from experience that being arrested in Iran doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong, and who often apologised for their regime.
But how do you know the three US hikers weren’t really spies?
They were definitely not, for at least two reasons:
No country would send spies to Iran that don’t speak Farsi , don’t look Persian, don’t have an Iranian name, don’t have any contact there, and so on. These three hikers would have stood out in Tehran like the proverbial sore thumb, especially because Iran does not attract much Western tourism. If somebody wanted to send spies to Iran, one would recruit from the vast community of Iranian exiles or refugees.
No intelligence agency would ever send three agents to a hostile country together in one group. They would go independently of each other, at different times, using different routes. Ideally, they would not even know each other.
I assume that the Iranian intelligence service already thought that Shane Bauer is a spy because his name is so similar to Jack Bauer of “24”, a series which also has many fans inside Iran.
So what can we do to get them released?
- First, let’s be clear about what won’t help: Appeals, letters, press releases. I can already see the many statements “condemning” this verdict and “appealing” for mercy. This is all a waste of time.
- Sarah Shourd was released on bail of 500.000 $. Maybe we could also pay ransom for the two remaining hikers, but the price has certainly gone up. You could think of the eight years prison sentence as the price tag which has to be converted into money, arms (remember the Iran-Contra affair?) or political favours.
- So what can we do that Iran wants? Not much, if we want to stick to the sanctions. We could stop secretly attacking the Iranian nuclear programme (if we even do that), but if that works, Iran will just hold on to the hostages as security. We could allow Iran more influence in its two neighbouring countries, Iraq and Afghanistan, but as we get ready to pull out soon, Iran will gain this influence anyway.
- One contemporary movement in the US certainly angers Iran and we could easily give that up: the campaign to remove the “People’s Mujahedin of Iran” from the list of terrorist organisations. I doubt if this will be enough, but if the US wants to approach the diplomatic route, this will have to be one of the first steps.
- There is no (para)military option to liberate and extract the prisoners. The daring attempt by Ross Perot to liberate two of his employees from an Iranian prison in 1979 did not succeed militarily; the prison was stormed during the course of the Islamic Revolution and all inmates were freed. Operation Eagle Claw, the attempt to liberate the US embassy hostages, failed. – Evin prison is located on the very Northern outskirts of Tehran, surrounded by mountains. The closest entry point into Iran to reach Tehran would be through the Caspian
Sea in which we have neither a base, nor any forces. From both Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s too far to fly undetected. Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, is used by the US military as an airport, but is still 670 km away. Even at maximum speed, this means more than two hours of flight time for a Black Hawk helicopter. – And even if you find the two men in the quite large complex of Evin prison (I was driven around by car between several buildings during my stay there) you would still need to get back to safety. Impossible.
- This leaves only one option: We need to arrest Iranians abroad whom the Iranian government would want to get freed, and then there will be a prisoner exchange. This suggestion might be inspired by my upbringing during the Cold War, but I think it’s the only strategy that will work. There are plenty of representatives of the Islamic Republic of Iran who do not enjoy diplomatic immunity (trade delegations, Press TV, companies held by the Iranian state).