After more than 26 months, the two American hikers held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison were released on Wednesday. The timing of the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, seems to have more to do with Iran's convoluted domestic politics than the espionage charges the men faced in court. Iran's beleaguered president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, and the release of the hikers—which he announced last week—serves as a huge political boost for him both domestically and internationally.
Ahmadinejad has reveled in bringing his road show to New York for the U.N. meeting for years. He's almost got it down to a formula, stirring up controversy in the weeks leading up to the meeting with statements questioning the Holocaust or the existence of Israel. And this year is no different. “Iran believes that whoever is for humanity should also be for eradicating the Zionist regime as a symbol of suppression and discrimination,” he told Hizbullah's Al Manar television station in late August. These controversial statements get Ahmadinejad plenty of attention from the Western media during his New York visits, which is exactly what he wants. But, in the past couple of years, his New York trips have also served as a smokescreen for the deep problems he faces back home.
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This year, Ahmadinejad's domestic woes have been worse than any other time in his presidency. In late April, Ahmadinejad clashed head-on with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei when he tried to dismiss the intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi. Khamenei intervened on behalf of Moslehi, a close ally, and overturned Ahmadinejad's decision. This public dustup signaled to Ahmadinejad's domestic opponents that it was open season on the president. Within weeks, a handful of Ahmadinejad's allies had been arrested and—bizarrely—accused of being “exorcists and sorcerers.” Parliamentarians talked openly about impeaching Ahmadinejad.
Now the political winds appear to have shifted. The release of Bauer and Fattal, reportedly after a $1 million bail payment, could not have happened without a green light from the Supreme Leader. And the timing sends a clear signal that Khamenei is backing Ahmadinejad once again. “Khamenei is the one responsible ultimately for their two-year detention, and he is the one who is now responsible for their release. Had he intervened they could have been released two years ago,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote in an email exchange. “Khamenei’s modus operandi is to wield power without accountability, and in order for that model to work he needs to allow Ahmadinejad to project some authority.”
Many Iranian M.P.s have been jockeying for power in the lead-up to parliamentary elections scheduled for next spring. It's possible that Khamenei gave this nod of support for Ahmadinejad to prevent the M.P.s from taking dramatic action, like impeachment proceedings against the president, which would deepen the political rifts in the country.
Bauer and Fattal's release comes almost exactly one year after their fellow hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released from Evin Prison after a $500,000 bail payment. Shourd, 33, was set free one week before Ahmadinejad's U.N. General Assembly address in 2010. Coincidence? The answer is, assuredly, not.