U.S. hikers and Iran’s maze

When Sarah Shourd, one of three Americans arrested and held without formal charges in an Iranian prison for more than a year, was finally released last month, people hoped that her two companions, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, would soon be released as well. But Iran seldom works in logical ways. Almost from the day the three Americans were arrested while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border in Iraqi Kurdistan, the government has been divided over what to do with them.

The hikers were first accused of illegal entry, and then espionage, a charge Iranian officials toss about freely. Some wanted to try the hikers for spying, despite the absence of evidence. Others, in the Revolutionary Guard and elsewhere, seem to have argued against release because of the fractious relations between Iran and the United States. Still others came to understand the damage this case was doing to Iran and sought its early resolution.

That last group, obviously, did not prevail. A simple incident that could have been settled expeditiously was blown out of proportion, and once again the Iranian government found itself in a quandary of its own making.

The inability of Iranian officials to resolve their differences was amply on display in the confusion surrounding Shourd’s release. A government spokesman announced on Sept. 9 that she would be allowed to go home “on humanitarian grounds,” crediting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s intervention in the case. The news media were even invited to witness a “release” ceremony at a major Tehran hotel. The event was suddenly switched to another location, then canceled. It turned out the judiciary, which hadn’t been consulted, opposed the release. Two days later, the judiciary reversed itself and allowed Shourd out on bail.


Iranian officials have not produced an iota of evidence to support a charge of espionage. But there is now once again vague talk of more investigations and an impending trial.

I also experienced the harrowing price innocent people can pay in today’s Iran, with its obsessively suspicious security services and divided government. In 2007, I was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.

It all began when I was on my way to the Tehran airport to return home to the United States after a trip to visit my aged mother. The car I was in was forced off the road by assailants who robbed me at knifepoint of all my belongings, including my passport. Before I could leave the country, I had to apply for a new passport, but my application set the stage for a background check by the ministry. From questions I was later asked, I realized that intelligence agents had staged the robbery to detain and interrogate me.

For six weeks, I was not allowed to leave the country and was interrogated nearly every day, sometimes for eight consecutive hours. Then the interrogations suddenly stopped, and for 11 weeks I heard nothing. I have since been told that inside the Intelligence Ministry and the government, officials were haggling over my fate. Finally, I was summoned to the ministry again, handed an arrest warrant and taken straight to Evin Prison. The hard-liners had won. The interrogations resumed, and I spent the next 105 days in solitary confinement.

A few days into my prison interrogation, I was shown a boldly headlined article in Kayhan, a newspaper close to the Intelligence Ministry, viciously attacking my husband and me as Zionist and American spies. The article was full of falsehoods. Hard-liners in the ministry, it seemed, were setting me up for a show trial

I was frightened and furious. “This is your work,” I said accusingly to my two interrogators. They could see how angry I was. A few days later, my chief interrogator assured me that such articles would not appear again. (Kayhan, in fact, continued to write about “the spy” but in briefer, more muted ways.)

In my case, the principal accusation was that I was helping the American government foment a “velvet revolution” in Iran. But weeks of interrogation did not produce the evidence or the confession the Intelligence Ministry was hoping for. As with the hikers, there came a point when the questioning wound down. There was nothing left to ask.

Still, I continued to be held. My senior interrogator told me more than once that “we want to let you go, but the ‘friends’ [meaning his superiors] are not satisfied.” There was more evidence of continuing internal divisions, and when I was finally released at the end of August 2007, my interrogators were in a frantic hurry to see me out of the country. “You must leave tonight,” one of them told me when he handed me my passport on a Saturday morning.


Having decided to let me go, people in the ministry now feared other hard-liners in the government would scuttle the deal. Indeed, Kayhan, true to form, editorialized that the $300,000 bail my mother was required to put up for my release was an insignificant sum for my “spymasters,” the U.S. government.

Two years after my release, Ahmadinejad referred publicly to the divisions inside the government over my case. Among the reasons he cited for firing his minister of intelligence, he noted that instead of going after “that old woman” — Haleh Esfandiari — his intelligence minister should have gone after the real plotters of a velvet revolution in Iran.

The most difficult part of my prison ordeal was the uncertainty, which I feel certain Shourd experienced and that her companions are still enduring. Threats and intimidation aside, the technique of the Intelligence Ministry is to keep its prisoners totally in the dark. I never knew whether I had been formally charged. I never knew what the intelligence agents or the investigating magistrate were planning for me. I never knew whether my incarceration would last another month, another year or 10 years. I feared a show trial, alongside other alleged “conspirators.” I did not know whether I would ever see my family again.

An international outcry played a crucial role in drawing attention to my case, but in the end, it required the intervention of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to secure my release. He instructed his lieutenants to bring the investigation and my affair to conclusion. His intervention is needed in this case as well. It is time for Iran to free the remaining two hikers and end an incarceration that has earned it only international opprobrium and condemnation.


Haleh Esfandiari directs the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.