What Are Iranian Politics Behind The Hiker's Release?

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Iran's internal politics are complicating the release of an American jailed after being arrested hiking near the border. Sarah Shourd, one of three hikers being held, may be released on a $500,000 bail. Melissa Block talks with Hadi Ghaemi of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran about the factors at play in Tehran's courts.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

The family of Sarah Shourd has asked that the government of Iran lower its bail demand. Shourd is one of three American hikers detained over a year ago along the Iran/Iraq border. Iran says she will be released if her family posts half a million dollars in bail. Shourd was set to be released on Saturday, at the request of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Iran's judiciary stepped in at the last minute, making her release dependent on the steep bail payment.

To talk about the case and how Tehran's internal politics are complicating the matter, we turned to Hadi Ghaemi. He is executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, based in New York.

HADI GHAEMI: Well, the whole case from the moment of detention has been pretty much based on the available evidence politically driven. It's important to note that Sarah and her two colleagues have been detained and held by the intelligence ministry, which is under Ahmadinejad's cabinet. And indeed we know that their case file has never been referred to the judiciary.

The allegations of spying that have been made against them, there's apparently no evidence against them. And now Ahmadinejad wanted to really quickly release them and get it over with, but his political rivals within the judiciary are preventing that. And they're saying proper judicial processes have to be followed and there has to be a bail and basically they want to insert them into the release and prevent him from releasing them and taking credit for it on the international stage.

BLOCK: And what does that tell you about any sort of internal power dynamics within Iran?

GHAEMI: It tells me that even after the harsh crackdown of last year, an elimination of reformists from all members of power, the remaining conservatives are indeed fighting very hard within the system. And Ahmadinejad not only on this case, but on many other domestic issues, is under fire from the parliament and the judiciary. And now this case has become another element of that cat fight within the Iranian political system.

BLOCK: We're also now hearing pretty strong rhetoric from the Revolutionary Guard in Iran saying that even releasing Ms. Shourd on bail is wrong. One lawmaker is calling it a bonus for Quran burners in the United States. What's the back story with rhetoric like that?

GHAEMI: I think that has to do with a more general Iranian-American relations and how Ahmadinejad may be using his upcoming trip to New York to make some inroads in those relationships. And there are elements within the system who do not want to see any positive movement in the relations between the two countries improving. And that is the rhetoric we're hearing - that they want to continue keeping America as the evil empire, the Quran burning nation and any release of an American citizen would be a positive signal to America at this time, which they do not see fit.

BLOCK: Can you think of other cases of Westerners who were held in Iran where bail was paid and they were released?

GHAEMI: Yes. Most recently we had a young French woman who was detained last summer and she was released on bail. What was most interesting about her case was that as soon as she arrived in France, an Iranian who was convicted as an assassin in France for the past 17 years and was imprisoned in France was released and returned back to Iran. And that gave rise to a lot of speculations that a backroom dealing between France and Iran had taken place. Both countries denied that.

BLOCK: And how much is this story being covered in Iran, in the media in Iran - the story of the hikers and what they're being charged with?

GHAEMI: Well, the Iranian media is under heavy censorship, but given the polarization and the factions within the ruling regime right now, we saw that some of the news services did carry the news, especially the news of delaying the release. And it is becoming an internal story and definitely piquing a lot of interest inside the country.

Hadi Ghaemi is executive director for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Mr. Ghaemi, thanks very much.

GHAEMI: Thank you for having me.

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