Who is behind Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal’s continued detention in Iran?

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal in the first session of their trial in Tehran

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal in the first session of their trial in Tehran

Source: Mehr News , Date: 15 September 2011

Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement in his interview with NBC News on 13 September 2011 that American prisoners Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal would be released in the next few days, Iran’s judiciary has declared that the two Americans’ dossier is still under review: “The request of the lawyers of the two accused, in relation to their bail and freedom, is still under scrutiny by the judge processing their dossier. News on this subject shall come from the judiciary and any news on this subject from other individuals is not permissible.”

Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd were arrested on charges of espionage on the Iran-Iraq border on July 2009.

While Miss Shourd has been released, Mr. Bauer and Fattal continue to remain in Iranian custody after being convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison.

After Ahmadinejad’s announcement of Mr. Bauer and Fattal’s imminent release, a number of Principalist figures lashed out against him and the idea of freeing the American prisoners.

Parviz Sarvari, head of the Internal Security Committee of Iran’s legislature (the Majlis), rebuked the president for overstepping his bounds in an interview with Mehr News:

“That the president would declare the release of the two spies in the last few days without the consent of the Judiciary is considered interference with [the separation of] powers, and according to the Constitution the executive branch does not have permission to decide on the accused spies.

Sarvari went on to call for a hardline to be taken in negotiations with the United States for the prisoners’ release:

“If the arrangement is that the two American spies are to be released without any concession from the American government, this is in contradiction with the spirit of the Islamic Revolution.”

“I believe that in this field it is wrong to try what has already been tried, because Sarah Shourd never returned to our country for her trial after her release, and without a doubt after their release these two Americans would have no motivation to return.”

Hamid-Reza Taraghi, Deputy of Foreign Affairs for Motalefeh party, took a similar approach in an interview, also with Mehr News:

“Because of Iran’s kind essence it has reviewed the issue of releasing these two American citizens, but their release is not yet certain.”

“Iran must not give concessions to America by releasing these two prisoners.”

Taraghi also made it clear that the continued detention of Mr. Bauer and Fattal was aimed at negatively affecting the president’s performance at this year’s UN General Assembly:

“Iran’s president, as in past periods, has participated in the United Nations General Assembly. Accordingly the issue of the release of the two American citizens was declared before Ahmadinejad’s trip to New York so that its echo could be heard on his trip.”

Editors’ note: Although Ahmadinejad has been presented as a hardline and Anti-Western president in the past, over the course of the last few years it has become increasingly clear that he and his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, are proponents of dialogue with the West. Their attempt at releasing Mr. Bauer and Fattal before this September’s UN GA is another sign which appears to point in this direction.

Ahmadinejad and Mashaei represent a new generation of leaders in Iran’s right-wing Principalist faction, referred to here as the Neo-Principalists, who seek changes in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy. Yet their efforts have been stymied by the old-guard in the Principalists, known as the Traditional Principalists, with Mr. Bauer and Fattal’s dossier being another part of the ongoing struggle between these two sub-factions.

While the New York Times has interpreted this most recent affair to be a rebuke to the president by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which proves Ahmadinejad’s lame-duck status- there is another way to see this. Iranian presidents are not in the habit of challenging the Supreme Leader, and none would have been expected to get away with it in the past. Yet Ahmadinejad is potentially the first president since Abol-Hassan Bani-Sadr to openly challenge the supreme leader, with the most prominent recent example being the Moslehi Affair. By calling for Mr. Bauer and Fattal’s quick release, Ahmadinejad was consciously overstepping the bounds of his powers and seeking to strengthen the position of the executive. While most remarked on the failure of this venture, the key point may be that the challenge stands. The very notion of the president challenging other key centers of power has become normalized in Iranian politics during Ahmadinejad’s tenure, and he is likely to challenge again. Whether the current president is ultimately successful or not, we must keep our eyes on the Neo-Principalists and their advances in Iran’s political system. The clearest sign of whether their challenge for power has been successful will likely be in the upcoming 2012 Majlis election.