American Hikers’ Fate Again Caught in Iran’s Domestic Power Struggle

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American hikers Shane Bauer (L) and Josh Fattal attend the first session of their trial at the revolutionary court in Tehran in this February 6, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Once, the two American hikers still being held by Tehran after inadvertently straying into Iranian territory while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border two years ago could be seen as pawns in the strategic confrontation between their own country and the Islamic Republic. A simple misunderstanding that might have been easily resolved within days or weeks in a less fraught environment turned into 26-month ordeal for Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer. But today their fate is clearly tied to an ongoing vicious power struggle within the Iranian regime, between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his rivals in the clergy, judiciary and legislature.

In a now-familiar pattern, Ahmadinejad, on the eve of his annual grandstanding pilgrimage to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, told the U.S. media that he intends to grant the hikers a “unilateral pardon” on an eight-year sentence handed down after they were convicted last month on espionage charges.

And just as quickly, Iran’s judiciary poured cold water over the president’s “goodwill gesture”. The very same ritual had been enacted a year ago before the Iranians released a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, who had been arrested with Bauer and Fattal. And the reasons for the conflicting statements out of Tehran are based entirely on the political knife-fight between an increasingly lame-duck president and his conservative rivals, who seek to demonstrate to their own country and the world the limits of Ahmadinejad’s power.

“I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home,” Ahmadinejad said of Fattal and Bauer in a Washington Post interview published Tuesday.

No, you’re not, said Iran’s judiciary. It’s not that the judges won’t allow the hikers to go home, but they insist the call is not Ahmadinejad’s to make. Indeed, they may see him as trying to jump on their bandwagon, because the hikers’ lawyer says they had already been asked to post “bail” of $500,000 each to secure their release.

Iran’s judiciary is headed by Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, brother of parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, and like his sibling a loyalist of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and a leading opponent of Ahmadinejad. The president has, over the past two years, fought an increasingly open political battle with Khamenei, and has essentially lost. The posturing populist bogey man the West loves to hate today wields no greater power in the Iranian system than did his predecessor, the hapless reformist president Mohammed Khatami.

Ahmadinejad comes to New York next week to speak, as ever — and, no doubt, to ruffle feathers with choice provocations from a rhetorical menu that includes Holocaust-denial and claims that the Bush Administration staged the 9/11 attacks — but it’s increasingly unclear on whose behalf he actually speaks. The judiciary’s slap-down if Ahmadinejad’s attempt to garner attention ahead of the U.N. General Assembly (where nobody will be paying him much attention, particularly when the Palestinian statehood issue is under discussion) is a sharp reminder that the president no longer represents the views of those in power in Iran. Indeed, the judiciary’s response to his “offer” on the hikers underscores the determination of his rivals to strip him of any status he may enjoy in the West by virtue of his title.

For the sake of two innocent hikers held hostage to Iran’s domestic power struggle, it is to be hoped that Ahmadinejad’s grandstanding — he even let NBC follow him around for a day; he’s not a head of state but he likes to play one on TV — won’t imperil plans for their release. But the contretemps in Tehran is a helpful reminder, ahead of next week’s antics, that no matter what he says, Ahmadinejad is not in charge in Iran.