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Iran Frees One Jailed American: Will Other 2 Face Trial?

September 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Iran has freed one of three Americans held in the country for more than a year on accusations of spying. Jeffrey Brown talks to two analysts on the region for insight into Tehran's decision.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m joined by Haleh Esfandiari, now director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And welcome to both you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karim, starting with you, what’s known about what led to the release today?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, associate, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: I think there’s a few points worth mentioning. First is that there’s no evidence against these three young hikers. The government detained them, the Iranian government detained them, August of 2009. And they stopped interrogating them a couple months after their detention.

So, I think, when you talk to people connected to their lawyers in Tehran, it’s clear that the government didn’t have any evidence against them. Second, she has a health concern. She found a lump on her breast. And I think the regime certainly didn’t want to be put in a position where they would be responsible for her health.

And I’m not convinced that President Ahmadinejad was responsible for her release, but I am convinced he will take credit for her release and try to spin it in a way to project himself as being a magnanimous, reasonable guy, ahead of his visit to the U.N. General Assembly next week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, well, this comes after a confusing series of pronouncements and then counterpronouncements over the last week. What do you see going on? First, the president said she would be released. And then the judiciary said, no, we will do it.

HALEH ESFANDIARI, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Well, I think this was a way for the judiciary to score a point with the president, because the judiciary is a separate entity from the government, and the head of the judiciary is appointed by the supreme leader.

So, when Ahmadinejad, without consulting the judiciary, decided to make this announcement, you know, they would let her let Sarah free, the judiciary immediately reacted and said, it is for us who decide when she is going to be freed. So, it shows really the differences that have been going on in the government all this time. They don’t speak with one voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: They don’t?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much independent is the judiciary in Iran?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: We can’t say it is independent, because a branch of the judiciary works very closely with the security apparatus and the intelligence ministry. But at least they would like to give the appearance that they can be independent if they want to.

JEFFREY BROWN: So but behind the scenes, it looks like a whole sort of I don’t know if power struggle is too much or a lot of strife.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think it’s safe to say there is a power struggle in Iran. There was an interesting memoir written several years in the United States entitled “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People.” And I think Ahmadinejad, in his post-presidential career, could author that type of memoir in Iran…

(LAUGHTER)

KARIM SADJADPOUR: because it’s remarkable how uncanny of an ability he has to get under people’s skin in Iran. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: He does and the rest of the world, too.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: And the rest of the world as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying in Iran.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, that’s the thing that…

JEFFREY BROWN: And what led to that?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, in the aftermath of the June 2009 presidential elections, any remaining moderates or pragmatists were essentially purged from the system.

And what resulted was a very hard-line government whose color spectrum ranges from pitch black to dark gray. And even among these conservatives, there’s tremendous animosity towards Ahmadinejad and the state that the country is in right now, under tremendous external pressure, but also internal pressure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does that sound right to you in terms of this struggle?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes, I agree with Karim, but I think, at the end that’s my guess that the supreme leader has to intervene once again, like he did in my case, and probably told the judiciary, just let her go, put an end to it, because how much more do you want to discredit the president?

JEFFREY BROWN: But the final decision would rest with the grand ayatollah…

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Yes. I mean, if he says, let her go, they would let her go. And that at least, that was in my case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, now, based on your case and taking back going back now to the particular case of Sarah and her companions, any sense of whether they would have known what was going on behind the scenes or might she have even expected to be released today? Would that have been a surprise? What what I know it’s conjecture, but what do you think based on what you…

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I hope she didn’t she wasn’t told last week that she would be released, because then she as we hear from her mother, she was suffering from depression, and that would have added to her depression. So, I hope not. But I believe maybe, when she met with her lawyer, they all three appeared in court yesterday. On on Sunday, they appeared in court. So, probably, he told her, this is what is going on. They want so she was expecting her release.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in your case, you had been you had thought you might be released at different times? Or what was the…

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I had been told on several occasions that I would be released in a week’s time, in five days’ time and so on. They were very cruel. And I really didn’t believe them. So, the last time, when I was summoned for interrogation, and I was instead of being interrogated, I was told, pack your bag and go, I thought, this is really the ultimate of cruelty. But, no, they were right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in the meantime, her two companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, are still being held. Might they face trial? Is there any hope for them for release?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I doubt they will face trial, because then the regime will expose their own lack of evidence against him. But, unfortunately, hostages in Iran oftentimes become political footballs. And I suppose President Ahmadinejad, he likes dramatic gestures. So, I could even see him wanting to bring them on the plane with him when he comes to New York next week.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: But, as I mentioned, because of this internal political struggle, his conservative rivals will not want to give him that type of credit. So, it’s very unpredictable. I hope they’re released very soon, but it’s plausible that this could drag on for a little bit longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you really think of them as pawns in all of these cases, yours, too, as pawns of to in Iran in Iranian politics?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I do. You know, it’s unfortunate. When you look at Iran’s neighbors, particularly Turkey and Dubai, they have managed to build thriving economies by trading in good and services.

And even three decades after the revolution and the 1979 hostage crisis, this regime remains in the business of trading in human beings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think there’s hope for a release?

HALEH ESFANDIARI: I beg to differ. I usually agree with Karim, but, on this point, I beg to differ. I think the regime needs a face-saving solution. And the face-saving solution is going to be to put the two on trial and sentence them maybe to a year or 15 months and they have served it and ask for some bail and let them go, but not within the next two, three weeks. Things have to calm down a little bit after the release of Sarah. But I see for the first time a light at the end of the tunnel.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will see what happens. Haleh Esfandiari and Karim Sadjadpour, thank you both very much.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you.

HALEH ESFANDIARI: Thank you.