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Ahmadinejad Scores Domestic Hit with Hikers' Release

by ALI CHENAR

23 Sep 2011 17:57Comments
N1010321-1746205.jpgInternational impact ironically much less certain.

[ news analysis ] After more than two years, Iranian authorities finally released Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, the two American hikers who were arrested on Iran's western borders along with Sarah Shourd, who was released a year ago. This has brought to an end another episode in the complicated U.S.-Iran relationship, leaving us to ponder what will come next. Ironically, it seems the event has more domestic implications than international ones.

It is no coincidence that Bauer and Fattal's release happened while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly. In the weeks before his trip, government officials began promising that the American hikers would soon be reunited with their families. In early August, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's foreign affairs minister, expressed his hopes that they would be released in the near future during the holy month of Ramadan.

The administration's statements were contradicted by the judiciary, headed by Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, whose brother Ali Larijani is the speaker of the Majles, Iran's parliament. A week after Salehi's pronouncement, Prosecutor-General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei, who also serves as spokesman for the judiciary, was quoted by the Iranian Students' News Agency saying, "The review of the case has ended and the final verdict will be issued soon." When he was asked about the possibility that they might be released during the holy month of Ramadan, he answered that he had not heard such "rumors." Five days later, on August 20, news agencies reported that Bauer and Fattal had been convicted as spies and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment. They had 20 days to appeal. Mohammad Djavad Larijani, brother of the judiciary chief and Majles speaker and a former diplomat who heads the Islamic Commission on Human Rights, told reporters, "The American hikers are spies and not just trespassers." He concluded, "We do not reward spies." Things did not look good for Bauer and Fattal.

As Ahmadinejad's departure for New York approached, it seemed that the hardliners had successfully stalled the release process. Despite the administration's promises, it appeared likely that Bauer and Fattal would remain in Evin Prison. Many were quick to consider the stalemate a victory for the hardline faction and a setback for Ahmadinejad. They found more evidence for that view during the ceremony attending the president's departure: instead of the Supreme Leader's chief of staff, Ayatollah Mohammad Golpayegani, the usual emissary, Ali Akbar Velayati, a former minister of foreign affairs and now advisor to the Supreme Leader on international affairs, represented Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the proceedings. Many analysts highlighted Golpayegani's absence. Mohammad Amini of the BBC's Persian Service wrote, "The rift between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad has reached such a level that the usual niceties are not performed anymore." Now it seems the tables have been turned.

Analyzing the Iran-U.S. relationship, many foreign observers rarely appreciate the internal ramifications of this relationship within Iran. Ali, a veteran journalist in Tehran, echoes a general belief when he says, "People believe whoever can reestablish a relationship with the United States will hold the winning card in domestic politics." To understand Ali's statement, one needs to remember the historical context -- several past efforts at forging an entente were frustrated by rival political factions and interest groups, making diplomatic engagement between two countries a very frustrating process. Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, commented on the negotiations to release the embassy hostages in his memoirs: "The question is finding someone [in Iran] who can deliver." This time -- despite a few days' delay -- someone finally delivered. The domestic implications are hardly lost on anyone.

Ali believes, "This is just another stage in the power struggle between the conservative factions headed by Ali Larijani, the Majles speaker, and Ahmadinejad." And it seems Ahmadinejad has won this round. "This was a huge gain for Ahmadinejad," Ali says. The hardliners submitted yet again after sounding their opposition and objections and yet Ahmadinejad will not stop at this. Ali thinks: "His goals are long run." He wants that winning card.

Still one wonders what his rationale might be in dealing with the United States. I posed the question to Payman, a 40-year-old Iranian businessman, who responded, "He wants to appear humane and kind-hearted." Still, he could not help notice the irony: "Mahmoud wants to look nice and to be accepted by international community; however, he sacrifices respectability and the legitimacy of the political establishment." Payman believes, "He officially announced to the world that despite all the claims that Iran's judiciary is independent and not politically motivated, the judiciary is not independent and the case was politically motivated." Payman wonders "how other governments could or would trust and respect such a political regime, when its own claims are refuted by its office holders." A point also echoed in the conservative circles that have not given up criticizing Ahmadinejad.

While Ahmadinejad and his faction have scored a domestic victory this week, his international gains are open to question. Muhammad, a political science graduate student, does not think Ahmadinejad and his administration gained anything internationally. "This was purely a domestic victory, and Ahmadinejad is not in a position to trade favors." Muhammad's analysis is based on the fact that "economically things do not look good at home. Even if conservatives give him a free hand, he is not speaking from a strong position."

Some also doubt that an opening with the United States would have much effect. Ali says, "The benefits of reestablishing ties with the United States might be exaggerated. The U.S. does not have a prominent place in Iran's foreign trade." In reality, Ahmadinejad might not benefit as much as he hopes from negotiating an opening with the United States. Ali continues, "The United States is not an important economic partner or a significant market. Its prominent role in imposing international sanctions on Iran might warrant a desire to reestablish ties." Still, Ali believes, "Ironically, other countries are better posed to benefit from the lifting of these sanctions than the United States."

For now, Ahmadinejad is seemingly happy with another visit to New York City and an opportunity to look gracious, while scoring a domestic victory. The overall state of the Iran-U.S. relationship and the economic conditions back home notwithstanding, in his book this was a good week.

Homepage photo: Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee leans in to whisper to Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's Foreign Minister, during President Ahmadinejad's address to the General Assembly on Thursday.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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