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Reading Iran: Was Release of US Hikers a Signal?

22 Sep 2011 23:14Comments

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[ quote, unquote ] Tehran Bureau asked Iranian analysts in both Iran and the United States to give their views on the timing of the release of American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. Their release after two years of confinement preceded President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's address to the General Assembly on Thursday. Was this some kind of gesture to the United States? Is the Islamic Republic looking for some kind of diplomatic opening? And finally, are there any parallels to the release of the 52 U.S. Embassy hostages, timed to coincide with President Ronald Reagan taking office?

Here are some excerpts:

"The hardliners did not release the hikers when Ahmadinejad said they would be released because they wanted to send the message that he is not the one who calls the shots and to embarrass him. They released them [Wednesday] because they wanted to demonstrate raf'at eslami (Islamic kindness), as shown by an organ controlled by the Supreme Leader."

"I do not believe the issue has to do with a diplomatic opening. Khamenei does not trust Ahmadinejad to be the representative of Iran and negotiate. If that had been the case, the approach would have been done in a completely different context in which the Supreme Leader has more control."

"Ahmadinejad worked hard to get them released, mainly because he likes to present a certain image of himself when he gives the Western media interviews. And this year at the U.N. it was important to him to come across as reasonable. I think he's given up on the idea of being the person who will bring the U.S. and Iran back to some sort of relationship -- he knows it won't be allowed on his watch. So no, I don't think it was for a diplomatic opening. But in terms of legacy, the elections in 2012 and 2013, he needs to pump himself up. At any rate, the hikers' release was being worked on at many levels for a long time -- they served very little purpose. But of course no one gives a **** about them here in Iran, and many people, including those very opposed to the regime, think they were indeed spies or at least were doing something fishy."

"With Reagan, it was different. First of all, it is widely believed that Khomeini and his government had reached a secret agreement with the Reagan team to release the hostages after the November 1980 elections when Carter was defeated. Secondly, the agreement was to release them just when Reagan was taking office. Third, at that time, the government was desperate to mend relations with the United States because they needed spare parts for U.S. weapons in Iran and the war with Iraq had just started. So it was a completely different situation."

"I think the Ahmadinejad gang still wants some kind of diplomatic exchange or 'victory' in this regard, especially with two elections around the corner. Ahmadinejad is still getting accused of parallel foreign policy ([Esfandiar Rahim] Mashaei, new VP position for Int Affairs [Ali] Saeedloo, etc. -- btw both Saeedloo and [Foreign Minister Ali Akbar] Salehi are in NY), but it's hard to see who really controls foreign policy. Still, although [Mohammad] Golpayegani didn't show up this year to see Ahmadinejad off at Tehran airport, which he'd done in past years to show Khamenei's support, it was quite noteworthy that Ali Akbar Velayati was there to bid goodbye to Ahmadinejad as he flew to New York."

"No, this wasn't done for a diplomatic opening. Ahmadinejad is in enough trouble. Obama too. They had to release them anyway, so they did so to coincide with Ahmadinejad's visit."

"I do believe Ahmadinejad succeeded in forcing his adversaries' hand here. The regime is very unhappy when the depth of its internal conflicts is made clear. I think it's fair to say that Ahmadinejad knew that his 'pardon' move would garner sufficient global attention that if it had been completely rebuffed, that would have brought extremely unwanted, widespread attention to the stresses within the nezaam [political system]. So the Khamenei-ists won the battle last week with their delaying tactics; Ahmadinejad wins the mini-war this week. But to what end?"

"We make too much of the rift between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. At the end of the day, Ahmadinejad is the Supreme Leader's president. He put too much political capital behind him. He's going to see him through. They had no choice but to release the hikers. The Americans showed no interest, no sign that they were willing to negotiate over them. It made no sense to keep them any longer."

"There is currently a stalemate in Iran domestically with each side wanting to outmaneuver the other side. This is no ordinary factionalism any more. It is a fight for survival. Each time one side wants to make a diplomatic breakthrough, it's aborted by the other side's intransigence. Therefore, we should not expect any openings in the foreseeable future -- unless the U.S. makes the initiative."

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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