Hikers reunited with families
Release from Iran after days of uncertainty
LONDON - They bounded off a special flight from Iran early today and into their families’ waiting arms, two Americans who hiked into the mountains on Iran’s western frontier and ended up at the center of a diplomatic skirmish that complicated the United States’ already fraught relationship with Tehran for more than two years.
The men, Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, both 29, hugged their loved ones amid a throng of photographers’ flashing cameras on a tarmac in Oman only hours after being freed from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and immediately taken by a diplomatic convoy to the airport.
After more than 26 months in custody, Iran’s judiciary decided yesterday to release the two men, who had been charged with espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. The two have denied the charges against them.
Their release, on $500,000 bail each, followed days of uncertainty over their fate after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised last week that they would be freed as a humanitarian gesture “in a couple of days.’’ The announcement by Ahmadinejad appeared calibrated to garner favorable attention for the Iranian leader before he flew to New York to attend this week’s UN General Assembly meeting.
But soon after his announcement, Iran’s judiciary denied that the men would be freed imminently, saying it had exclusive authority to order their release.
Analysts said the judiciary’s move last week was a very public rebuke to the president by Iran’s conservative establishment and a reminder of Ahmadinejad’s deep split with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once his most ardent ally.
By allowing the release yesterday after a delay, analysts said Iran’s hardliners were able to deliver a message to Ahmadinejad that he is not fully in charge while still allowing Iran to project a magnanimous image as it takes to the world stage.
“In the end, they were not going to undermine completely the president of the country, but they made their point,’’ said Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and an expert in Iranian affairs. “Ahmadinejad got what he wanted - these guys were released before his speech tomorrow. But the judiciary got what they wanted as well in showing that it was not entirely his call.’’
Nasr added that the larger decision to release the prisoners appeared to have the backing of the entire Iranian government and that the public squabbling was over the smaller question of who would announce the news, and when.
Before their arrival in Oman, the men’s families said in a prepared statement that “the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds’’ and that they would now “catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us.’’
President Obama welcomed the news and thanked the leaders of Oman and Iraq, who helped to negotiate the hikers’ release, as well as the Swiss government, whose embassy in Tehran looks after American interests there. “All Americans join their families and friends in celebrating their long-awaited return home,’’ he said. Obama pointedly did not mention the Iranian government in his statement.
Bauer, Fattal and a third American hiker, Sarah E. Shourd, who is Bauer’s fiancee, were arrested near northern Iraq’s border with Iran in July 2009 by Iranian border guards, who contended they had intentionally trespassed.
Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September 2010 - also with help from Omani officials and just before the annual General Assembly meeting - and returned to the United States. She was among the family members waiting in Oman yesterday for the arrival of the two Americans.
Though the spying case against all three hikers remained open, they were not expected to return to Iran.
Iran’s detention of the Americans has aggravated relations with the United States, which are at odds over Iran’s nuclear program and its hostility toward Israel. Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Western powers suspect it is designed to build atomic weapons.
But Nasr said the outcome was not yet so certain. Their release could be considered an olive branch meant to thaw relations with the United States, he said, or it may have been timed simply to interject Iran into a Western news cycle dominated by a vote for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. “We don’t know what the game plan is here,’’ he said. “We don’t know what they’re trying to get.’’