One year later, little hope for American hikers held in Iran
As relations between the U.S. and Iran sputter, 3 hikers languish in the middle
NEW YORK — When Laura Fattal went to visit her son Josh in an Iranian prison in May, just a week before his 28th birthday, she didn't bring him a card. She didn't want him to think he would be there for the next few days, let alone a week.
But Josh and his two friends, Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer, have all celebrated birthdays inside Tehran's Evin prison. And today they'll mark a different anniversary — one year since Iranian authorities arrested them as they hiked near the Iranian border with Iraq.
It is unclear whether the three hikers accidentally crossed into Iran or were forced across the border by armed Iranian guards, as a recent report by the Nation suggests. But what is clear is that it's been a tumultuous year for the hikers, their families and U.S.-Iran relations.
"We've been through a big roller coaster ride," Fattal said in an interview. "There have been a lot of great highs and a lot of deep lows."
Despite moments of optimism, little progress has been made toward the hikers' release and, more broadly, toward the engagement with Iran that President Barack Obama first promised on the campaign trail in 2007.
It was a promise Obama reiterated in a bold address to the Islamic world from Cairo in June 2009.
"I recognize it will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude, and resolve," Obama said, speaking specifically about the United States' relationship with Iran. "There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect."
But just over a week after the Cairo address, violence toward Iranian protesters disputing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory in the country's June 12 elections began to tarnish the Obama administration's new engagement strategy.
Tensions between the two countries continued to build in September, when Obama announced that Iran was building a secret nuclear facility in Qom, a city roughly one hundred miles outside of Tehran. In October, Iran rejected a proposal to exchange low-grade enriched uranium for fuel rods capable of powering a medical research reactor — a so-called nuclear fuel swap — after its negotiators initially agreed to the deal.
Despite renewed efforts by Brazil and Turkey to broker a fuel swap in May, the United Nations passed a new round of sanctions against Iran in June; the United States, Europe, Canada and Australia have passed or announced plans for more extensive sanctions in the last few weeks.
"We've been at a stalemate ever since [the nuclear fuel swap failed]," Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., said "The hikers became victims of this lack of political engagement between these two countries."
Esfandiari has also been the victim of estranged U.S.-Iran relations. An Iranian American, Esfandiari was detained in Evin prison for 105 days in 2007 after Iran's intelligence ministry accused her of working with the U.S. government to overthrow the Iranian regime.
She said she sympathizes with the hikers and especially with Shourd, who is being held in solitary confinement, just as she was.
But the blame cannot rest on Iran alone, said Trita Parsi, author of "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States," and president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington, D.C. "Both sides have institutionalized enmity with the other."
For example, the United States could have done more to encourage the nuclear swap proposed by Brazil and Turkey, he said.
"There didn't seem to be any hesitation in rejecting [the swap]," said Parsi, who is also a visiting political policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. "That raises questions as to how much priority we're giving to diplomacy at this stage."
Other circumstances were beyond the Obama administration's control. After June's elections and subsequent crackdown on opposition groups, the United States had little choice but to condemn Iran's actions.
Still, the turmoil of this year means the United States and Iran now face an even more difficult path to engagement, though Iran has expressed willingness to resume talks in September. It also complicates efforts to release the hikers.
"Unfortunately, the longer the time goes, it seems like it will be more and more difficult to resolve [the hikers'] situation," Parsi said. "There is a limit to what you can do when you don't even have an ongoing conversation with a country."
The lack of diplomatic relations with Iran is also a source of frustration for the families of the three hikers. Efforts to release them must be made through Swiss intermediaries. Even the families' letters must pass to representatives at the U.S. State Department, to the Swiss and then to Tehran. Though the families speak with State Department officials twice a week, Cindy Hickey, the mother of Shane Bauer, said she doesn't know anymore about her son's case than she did after he was first detained last year.
"Several times a day my emotions go up and down depending on news," said Hickey, who closely follows media coverage of Iran. "That's the hardest part, we have very little control about what's happening in these two countries."
Still, the families work nearly full time trying to secure their children's release and have organized 30 protests around the globe to mark their year in Iran.
"They're being held for political reasons," said Nora Shourd, Sarah's mother. "When policies shift, or whatever is going on in Iran, it's all part of the same game and our kids are stuck in the middle."
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.