TOPICS > World

Imprisoning American Hikers ‘Further Tarnished Iran’s International Reputation’

September 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has worked with the families of the American hikers that were released Wednesday from Iranian custody after two years. He speaks with Judy Woodruff about the factors that led to the prisoners' release.

Joining us now to talk about how the hikers gained their freedom is Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has been working with the families of the hikers.

And, Karim, it’s good to see you again.

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Associate, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: Likewise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did Iran let them go, after they were sentenced to eight years each?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, Judy, when these young men were detained 26 months ago, they began as hostages to this U.S./Iran Cold War.

And over time, they kind of evolved into hostages to the internal Iranian political situation, to Tehran’s internal political battles. The problem they had was that their main champion was President Ahmadinejad, who wanted them released in order to win some positive publicity for himself.

But because of the fact that Ahmadinejad is so embattled domestically, he has made himself so many adversaries, his adversaries, his enemies wanted to deprive him of that positive publicity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does their release mean he won this battle, or the fact that it was delayed so long mean that he looks weak? Which is it?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think it can be a combination of the two.

We have to kind of say that the real power in Iran is the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Had it not been for Khamenei, these two young men wouldn’t have been detained for 26 months. Had it not been for Khamenei, they also wouldn’t have been released today.

And Khamenei has this very Machiavellian leadership style, in which he likes to wield power without accountability. And in order to wield power without accountability, he needs a president like Ahmadinejad, who has accountability without power.

And I think it’s a delicate balance which Khamenei has to play, because, on one hand, he wanted to put Ahmadinejad in his place. He wanted to weaken him domestically. On the other hand, I don’t think he wanted to render him totally impotent and render Ahmadinejad kind of this totally powerless puppet, because then all eyes would then go on Khamenei.

So, I think that he achieved what he wanted to, which was what that he made Ahmadinejad sweat a little bit. It became obvious that, when Ahmadinejad snaps his finger, these prisoners aren’t going to be released. But at the same time, he has allowed Ahmadinejad to deliver on what he said he would do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying ultimately Khamenei felt it was his interest, in government’s interest to let them go?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: That’s absolutely right. Nothing really has been achieved these last 26 months.

When Iran first detained them, they intimated that they wanted Iranian prisoners in U.S. prisons exchanged. They weren’t able to achieve that. And we can go back to the 1979 hostage crisis. Iran kind of embarks on these operations without really knowing where they’re going.

And, ultimately, in a short time, I think they recognize that the costs of continuing the hold on to these folks outweigh the benefits.

JUDY WOODRUFF:  The million dollars, the role of Oman, explain that. And where’s the money coming from?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think that, in the past, the money — when Sarah Shourd, also, who was the hiker who was released last year, when she was released, I think the money came from the Omani government.

And I kind of look at Oman as — there’s a U.S. diplomat I’m sure you’re familiar with called Ryan Crocker, who is the currently U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who is one of the most effective diplomats of his generation, but always known as someone who doesn’t go after headlines. He kind of quietly gets the job done.

And Oman is kind of the Ryan Crocker of Middle East diplomacy, in that they’re not after the headlines, like Dubai, like Turkey, like Qatar, but they kind of quietly get the job done effectively. And Oman really played an instrumental role in winning the release, not only of Sarah Shourd last year, but also Josh and Shane today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying the money actually came from the Omani government?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: It appears that the money came from the Omani government. Whether they’re reimbursed by the United States, I don’t know.

But I think, for the sultan of Oman, a million dollars is probably a drop in the bucket.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, I noticed in President Obama’s statement today, he mentioned — he thanked the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, and he also thanked the Swiss government. What role did they play in…

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, the Swiss government looks after U.S. interests in Tehran.  And the Swiss ambassador…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, that was more of a formality?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about Iraq?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Iraq also — I mean, there were many back channels involved in these negotiations.

The Turks made efforts. The Iraqis made efforts. The Omanis made efforts. But, ultimately, I would go back and say that really the supreme leader probably made a decision that, you know, to continue to hold on to these people didn’t really have any benefit. They didn’t achieve anything.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when all is said and done, Karim Sadjadpour, U.S.-Iran relations any different, any better off, worse off, the same, as a result of all this?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, they’re worse off, unfortunately.

I think that this has really further tarnished Iran’s international reputation. There’s a new BBC poll out which says that Iran has now eclipsed North Korea as the least-liked nation in the world.

And I saw, even on Facebook, a young Iranian was commenting. And he said that, you know, what’s sad about this is that these two young men never got to experience kind of the richness of Iranian culture or Iran’s ancient history, the warmth of the Iranian people. All they saw was the inside of Evin prison, and now they’re leaving.

And I think this really further isolates Iran internationally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does anyone think they were actually spying, as the Iranian government said?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: No, I don’t think anyone thinks they were actually spying.

And the fact that the Iranian regime never wanted to try them publicly, they never produced a shred of evidence, I think, reveals the fact that they were doing what they said they were doing, which was hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Karim Sadjadpour, we thank you for being with us again.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you, Judy.