All of this should have been a non-event, even if the hikers strayed over the border. Only the Iranians know whether they are actually paranoid enough to believe the hikers were spies, or just saw an opportunity to seize the three and parade them before the world as trophies.
In any event, the two remaining in Iranian custody ought to be considered hostages. As long as they are detained, the Iranians will indeed attempt to use them as bargaining chips in any way they believe could work. An update on this story. “Two American hikers sentenced to eight years in an Iranian jail,” from the Associated Press, August 20:
Two American men already held for two years in Tehran have been sentenced to eight years each in prison on charges of espionage and illegal entry into Iran, state TV reported on Saturday.
The announcement appeared to dash hopes for the imminent release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after Iran’s foreign minister suggested earlier this month that the trial could clear the way for their freedom.
The Americans deny the charges and say they were only hiking in a scenic and largely peaceful area of northern Iraq near the Iranian border.
The two men have been held since July 2009 after being taken into custody on the Iran-Iraq border. A third American who was taken with them, Sarah Shourd, was released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States.
Shourd’s case ‘is still open,’ the website irinn.ir reported.
Bauer and Fattal’s prison terms may also be used as leverage to attempt to make Shourd return for trial in exchange for reductions in their sentences.
The Americans say they mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall. While other parts of Iraq remain troubled by violence, the semiautonomous Kurdish north has drawn tourists in recent years, including foreigners.
The case has added to tensions between the United States and Iran that were already high over other issues, including Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.
The U.S. government has appealed for the two men to be released, insisting that they have done nothing wrong. The two countries have no direct diplomatic relations, so Washington has been relying on an interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to follow the case.
Earlier this month, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said he hoped ‘the trial of the two American defendants who were detained for the crime of illegally entering Iran will finally lead to their freedom.’ Their lawyer also had expressed hope they might receive a pardon for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan….
There may well also be pressure on Fattal and Bauer to convert to Islam to improve their chances of Ramadan clemency.