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 UC 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. interests in Iran, and were flown to the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, a Washington ally that posted the bail and helped negotiate their release.
In Oman, the men rushed off the plane shortly before midnight into the arms of family members waiting on the tarmac. Officials said they would spend two days in Muscat, the Omani capital, 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, while they were imprisoned.
“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 brief comments before leaving the airport, Bauer said, “Two years in prison is too long.”
In a White House statement, President 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 said 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 that 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 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 reelection by fraud. The protest movement, which supported two reform-minded candidates, was crushed by a campaign of arrests and violence.
But Ahmadinejad has angered Khamenei with 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.
“He’s been a lost cause domestically, but this can help his international image,” said Reza Kaviani, an analyst. “He is playing make-believe that he is the victim of the judiciary branch.... This victim role is the latest farce in his theater of politics.”
The president’s slice of the world has changed much in the last 10 months as revolutions and uprisings reshape Middle East politics and threaten to disrupt Iran’s role as regional spoiler. Ahmadinejad, some analysts said, may have been conciliatory about the hikers to improve Iran’s image and bargaining power.
The central question in Iran is always how the supreme leader will respond. Will he allow Ahmadinejad to claim a success?
One notable twist in the saga was that although the judges rebuffed the president for days, they did release the hikers on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s address to the United Nations. This suggests that even the president’s enemies did not want to squander a chance to earn some goodwill.
Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were arrested in summer 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 U.S., 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, Minn., and 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 to 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.
Times staff writer Fleishman reported from Cairo and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.