x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Arrested US hikers seen as Iranian bargaining chips

Tehran links Americans' fate to jailed Iranians as move raises speculation that the prisoners are being used as pawns in the nuclear plans.

Iran has promised to allow the distraught mothers of three American hikers arrested along the Iraqi border nine months ago to visit them in a Tehran prison. Iran insists the belated gesture is solely humanitarian. But its timing has generated informed speculation that the move is intended to convince a sceptical Washington that Iran is committed to resuscitating a uranium fuel swap deal designed to defuse rising tensions over its nuclear programme.

Tehran's renewed interest in the stalled deal, first brokered by the United Nations last October, comes as the US is pressing for a fourth set of UN Security Council sanctions against the Islamic republic. Iran said yesterday that it had been discussing with Turkey and Brazil a "new formula" for the fuel exchange that "could pave the ground for a new understanding". Both the countries - non-permanent members of the UN Security Council - have good relations with Washington, but oppose fresh sanctions against Iran.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Brazil's president, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva, will be in Tehran at the same time next week for talks on the fuel deal, Iran said yesterday. "The Iranians are pushing very hard on possible Turkish and Brazilian mediation, which makes you wonder if there are indirect discussions going on with the Americans," said Scott Lucas, a professor of American studies and Iran expert at Birmingham University in England.

"So it's possible Iran is offering as a concession to work on the case of the detained Americans to help with the nuclear issue - which is of much more importance to Tehran," Mr Lucas said in an interview. If so, as long suspected, the three hapless American hikers are pawns in a complex and potentially explosive geopolitical chess game. None has been brought to trial. But Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal - all friends from their days at the University of California, Berkeley - have been accused of crossing illegally into Iran, as well as espionage.

Their families and Washington have strenuously denied the spying accusations. Espionage can carry the death penalty in Iran although the Islamic Republic has never executed a westerner and such an outcome now is unimaginable. Tehran has linked their fate to that of several Iranians it says the US has "illegally" detained, raising fears the Americans are being held as bargaining chips. That linkage was raised again by Iran's foreign minister, Manou-chehr Mottaki, as he announced that their mothers would be given visas so they can visit them at Evin prison.

"The kidnapped Iranians also have families, their families are also worried, and you should make efforts to ensure that their families can get visas and visit them," Mr Mottaki said, addressing Washington, but without making the request a quid pro quo. His remarks came in an interview on Iran's foreign policy on Monday with state television in which, perhaps more significantly, he also called for "political will" on the uranium fuel deal.

Iran initially had accepted the October accord to send the bulk of its low enriched uranium (LEU) stockpile to Russia and France for further enrichment into fuel rods for a medical research reactor in Tehran. The deal was essentially a confidence-building measure that would delay by several months Iran's plans to build a nuclear bomb, experts say. The accord broke down when Iran, which vehemently denies any such ambition, insisted that the swap took place on its territory and only in small, phased quantities.

The breakthrough now depends on whether Iran accepts an LEU exchange in a third country, such as Brazil or Turkey. Trapped in the middle of the heavily mined diplomatic no-man's land between Tehran and Washington are the three Americans. Their families insist that if they crossed Iraq's poorly defined Kurdistan border with Iran, they did so unintentionally and innocently while hiking in the picturesque, mountainous region.

Concern for the detainees' health has grown in recent weeks after Swiss diplomats, who represent US interests in Iran in the 31-year-old absence of diplomatic relations, visited the jailed Americans last month. They reported that Shourd, 31, is suffering from a serious gynaecological problem and battling depression, while Bauer, 27, has a stomach ailment. The hikers' mothers say they have their bags packed and are ready to go. But Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, from Pine City, Minnesota, said it was the third time in recent weeks the families had been told they would be granted visas.

"We're very cautious about our optimism," she said, while adding: "I have to say I'm more hopeful than I've ever been." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae