A Long-Awaited Release

Hostages caught between Ahmadinejad and his rivals.

Iran has finally freed two American hikers it has held as spies since July 2009, just in time for Ahmadinejad to brag about how reasonable he is during his address to the U.N. General Assembly. The Iranian President will hail their release as a conciliatory gesture to the U.S., skipping over the fact that they were completely innocent and never should have been arrested in the first place.

The three hikers were Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, who is engaged to Bauer. They were hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan when, according to the Iranian government, they went across the border. The group says that if they did, it was a mistake. They were held as American spies. Shourd was released last year after she went on a hunger strike and a $500,000 bail was posted. The regime held onto Fattal and Bauer, and on August 20, sentenced them to eight years in prison.

Ahmadinejad spoke in favor of giving them a minimal punishment, and there was speculation that they’d be released at the end of Ramadan. The judiciary, stocked with opponents of Ahmadinejad, shot down the talk and they remained in custody. Supreme Leader Ali Khomenei, locked in a power struggle with Ahmadinejad, is assumed to be behind the challenge to him. Ali Alfoneh, an expert on Iran with the American Enterprise Institute, said that Khomenei “really wants to humiliate Ahmadinejad before the U.N. visit” by preventing their release.

Ali Nourizadeh of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies agreed. He said that Ahmadinejad loves media attention, and sought to be greeted by crowds of American reporters competing to interview him about their release as he arrived in the country. “Khamenei deprived him and did not allow him to enjoy the benefit and also to have the credit,” he said.

Last week, Ahmadinejad announced that the two would be given a “unilateral pardon” and, because of his goodwill, they’d go free. The judiciary, loyal to Khomenei, immediately said that his words were meaningless. He did not have the authority to order their release, the body said. Ahmadinejad either won the struggle or a compromise was reached. The day before his address to the U.N., the Omani government posted a $500,000 bail for each prisoner, and its officials escorted Fattal and Bauer as they left Evin Prison.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim Brotherhood front that has received Iranian financing, took credit. The organization took part in a delegation to Iran to ask for their release, and Executive Director Nihad Awad, playing into Ahmadinejad’s hands, said the U.S. was now obligated to return the friendly gesture. “We hope our government will now address the issue of Iranian citizens detained in the United States with the same spirit of compassion,” he said.

The power struggle within the Iranian government dramatically heated up since late last year, and will only become more hostile as parliamentary elections become nearer. In December, Ahmadinejad fired Foreign Minister Mottaki without consulting Khomenei so that he could replace him with someone from his camp. In April, the Intelligence Minister fired a supporter of Ahmadinejad, and so the Iranian president retaliated by sacking him. Khomenei demanded that he be re-instated.

In May, Ayatollah Khomenei told Ahmadinejad to fire his chief of staff and best friend, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, following the leaking of the regime’s apocalyptic film, The Coming is Upon Us. Over two dozen associates of Mashaei were arrested for allegedly dabbling in witchcraft, and a top cleric accused Ahmadinejad of having been “put under a spell.” Since then, the parliament has grappled with Ahmadinejad as he took over the Oil Ministry, and a growing number of parliamentarians want to impeach him.

The release of the hikers is another instance of the Iranian regime backing down from confrontation over the past two years. International pressure forced it to cancel the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother convicted of adultery. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison instead of the death penalty. After the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, Iran did not want to be outdone by Turkey and declared the Iranian Revolutionary Guards would command a ship to break the Gaza blockade. It never sailed. In May, an Iranian flotilla was dispatched to Bahrain to support the Shiite opposition against the Royal Family, but turned around after being ordered to stop. This summer, Iran was responsible for a spike in casualties among U.S. soldiers in Iraq in July. After threats from top U.S. officials and unspecified retaliatory actions, there was a "dramatic reduction" in attacks the next month.

This pattern does not mean that the Iranian regime is rethinking its anti-American posture or that it has given up its designs on the region. It does mean that the regime is avoiding a huge escalation for the moment, probably because of its vicious in-fighting.

We can finally celebrate that the two innocent American citizens are again with their friends and families, but Ahmadinejad should not be thanked for it. If the media salutes him for it, then he will have gotten what he wanted and will score points in his fight for political survival.