x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

US hikers' future is hanging in the balance

The fate of the three American hikers is now linked to several Iranians that Tehran says the US has "illegally" detained.

Three US hikers lost more than their bearings when they strayed across Iran's mountainous northern border five months ago. They stepped into the heavily mined diplomatic no man's land between Tehran and Washington. Their fate is now linked to several Iranians that Tehran says the US has "illegally" detained.

Iran announced on Monday that it would put the trio on trial. It did not specify charges, although a prosecutor has accused them of spying, which can carry the death penalty. It was no coincidence that, on the same day, a US court jailed for five years an Iranian caught in an undercover arms-smuggling investigation. Washington responded furiously to the threat that three of its citizens will be hauled before an Iranian court. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, declared it was "totally unfounded" and demanded their immediate release. "They were out hiking and unfortunately, apparently, allegedly, walked across an unmarked boundary," she said

Foreigners are rarely arrested in Iran, although reporters or academics with dual nationality have been jailed in recent years. No westerner has been executed in Iran on any charge since the 1979 Islamic revolution - and such an outcome now is unimaginable. Iran probably has another endgame in mind. In January, an American-Iranian journalist, Roxana Saberi, was arrested in Tehran, convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in jail. She was freed on appeal in May. Several months later, the US military released five Iranians held in Iraq for more than two years.

The detention of US citizens in Iran is a highly emotive issue in the US because of raw memories of the prolonged embassy hostage crisis in 1979. Iran's decision to try the three is in stark contrast to its release within days of British yachtsmen who had strayed into Iranian territorial waters. Tehran deemed they had made an innocent mistake. But the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, claimed this week that the hikers had "entered Iran illegally with suspicious aims".

The three, incarcerated in separate cells in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, are Joshua Fattal, 27, from Oregon, Shane Bauer, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31, from California. Their families say they wandered into Iran while hiking on unmarked trails in Kurdish Iraq and they were arrested by Iranian border guards on July 31. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has suggested they could be freed if the United States releases Iranians who are "in US prisons right now with no good reason". He linked their case to that of Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian engineer-cum-procurement operator who wept as he was sentenced to five years in prison by a court in Delaware on Monday.

Ardebili had pleaded guilty last year to violating US arms-control laws by trying to buy components for Iranian fighter planes and missile guidance systems. His motivation, he protested, was to protect Iran from a possible US missile attack. Iran is as angrily indignant over his case as Washington is over the hikers. Ardebili, on his first trip ever abroad, was arrested in a sting operation two years ago in Tbilisi, Georgia. He was lured there by undercover US agents posing as Philadelphia-based arms dealers. He was, unsurprisingly, stunned when they revealed their true identity and handcuffed him at his Tbilisi hotel.

Politico, a respected US political media organisation, said Ardebili was secretly extradited and held in solitary confinement from January until May 2008, when he pleaded guilty to US export control violations. He was then held "in secret" in a federal prison for a further 19 months until his indictment was unsealed this month. Iranian media insisted he was subjected to a "show trial". His case "may set a troubling precedent", Politico reported on Monday.

Clif Burns, a US export control attorney, said the public would be "apoplectic" in a reverse scenario. "What would be the response if Iranian agents abducted the CEO of Twitter while he was in say, the UAE, dumped him into solitary confinement in an Iranian prison, and secretly indicted him with aiding and abetting sedition by Iranian dissenters?" Mr Burns told Politico. Washington strenuously rejects this version of events. Ardebili was "accorded due process rights every step of the way" - including in Georgia - where he was held by local authorities and had two judicial appeals before being extradited, insisted the assistant US attorney general, David Hall, who prosecuted the case.

But, Mr Burns said: "If I were the judge, I'm not so sure I'd have accepted a plea that was only made after two years of secret imprisonment unless I was absolutely convinced that the US government hadn't told the guy that they'd lock him up forever if he didn't plead guilty." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae