Every morning and afternoon Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer are allowed to step out of their cells and go for havakhori, Persian for getting fresh air, when they are allowed to walk or run for an hour in one of the many courtyards of Evin Prison in Tehran, where they are incarcerated. After more than 15 months in Evin, the two Americans must know every dark gray tile covering the floor; every red brick on the courtyard walls. Havakhori is probably the time when they most wonder about when they will be freed. Fattal and Bauer most likely close their eyes and imagine they are walking in their neighborhoods—in Philadelphia and Oakland, respectively. They also must wonder how they ended up in a Tehran jail and under what circumstances they will be released. But by now the pair must realize that their upcoming trial, on Nov. 6, has little to do with justice and what they may or may not have done. And they would be right. Former Iranian intelligence officials and diplomats have indicated to Newsweek that the two hikers are the victims of cultural misunderstanding, a factional struggle within the Iranian government, and a combination of geopolitical rivalry and tacit cooperation between Iran and the United States.
The Iranian intelligence officials, none of whom would be named discussing a highly sensitive matter, confirmed a Nation magazine report asserting that Fattal, Bauer, and Sarah Shourd were kidnapped, in July 2009, by Heyva Taab, a local crime boss and ex-commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. According to ex-officials, the Guards allegedly used to pay Taab for delivering the bodies of Kurdish guerillas. Taab would kill innocent Kurds along the Iran-Iraq border, dress them as guerillas, and hand them over. He is currently in jail in Iran for killing an Iranian official and his nephew.
Kurds live in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq and have agitated for an independent Kurdish state that would be carved from territory inside the three countries, all of which have historically fought to prevent the creation of such an entity. “Iran thinks of separatist movements as the most dangerous threat against the security of the nation,” says a former Iranian diplomat. “All our neighbors know and respect that.” An Iranian former intelligence officer says that “in a highly tense situation, criminal elements [such as Taab] inevitably take advantage of genuine security worries. Criminal gangs carry out their activities in Kurdistan by pretending to be Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Because the Quds Force is actively present in those areas, it is extremely difficult to distinguish between the criminals and the Guards.” The Quds Force is a special unit of the Revolutionary Guards reportedly tasked with extraterritorial operations and which reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The former officials tell NEWSWEEK their views on the hikers are consistent with the thinking of currently serving Iranian officials: that the Americans are either spies or naive victims of a particularly complex situation. The officials oppose the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government but are also deeply suspicious of U.S. actions and intentions in the region. “My main problem with Ahmadinejad is that his extremist and provocative policies allow the Americans and the Israelis to find reasons to undermine our security and at the same time weaken our ability to defend ourselves against these potential threats,” said one former diplomat. Nonetheless, the officials describe the relationship between the U.S. and Iran as a volatile mix of public opposition and quiet cooperation. While Washington is determined to limit Iran’s influence and power in the region, officials in both Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan say that U.S. military commanders across the border in Iraq understand Iran’s security concerns and tend to turn a blind eye to Revolutionary Guard activities inside Iraq—as long as they don’t harm American troops.
Regardless, Iranian intelligence officials say they have a hard time understanding how or why three American hikers who are innocent would come close to the border with Iran. “Are you telling me that they had nowhere else to go hiking except for the area close to the border?” asked one. A friend of the hikers, Shon Meckfessel, told NEWSWEEK in July that all three opposed what they considered the Bush administration’s saber rattling with Iran and the possibility of an American and Israeli attack on the Islamic republic. But when told that Meckfessel had said that the hikers were already based in the Middle East and that the area is advertised as safe for foreign tourists, the same former intelligence official said he was even more suspicious. “So these people say they knew the region inside out and still approached Iran’s border with American passports in their pockets a month after the chaos and turbulence in the streets of Iran, a month after people like you were getting arrested for reporting what was going on? How do you expect me, or anyone else, to believe that?” A former Iranian diplomat told NEWSWEEK that at best the hikers made a poor decision: “Even if these Americans are not spies, then they are really ignorant people to put themselves in such a dangerous situation.”
Bauer and Shourd, who was freed last September, had been based in Syria before their friend, Fattal, joined them for a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan on the border with Iran. Bauer and Shourd are peace activists who expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and had been organizing actions and demonstrations against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The two had worked in Syria with Palestinian refugees—their friends have praised them for their commitment to what those friends described as ending U.S.-Israeli aggression. From his base in Syria, Bauer made several trips to Iraq and wrote about the human cost of the U.S. occupation. His last article, for The Nation, was about death squads in Iraq that he said were supported by the U.S. Army. In a meeting with Ahmadinejad in New York last month, Shourd told him about their activism, citing it as proof of their innocence. But that history does not appear to have had any impact on Iranian officials considering possible clemency or amnesty.
None of the three American hikers has ever acknowledged crossing the Iranian border. In May 2009, during a visit by the hikers’ mothers, they were asked if they regretted entering Iran. “We didn’t enter Iran,” Bauer responded. In interviews after her release, Shourd has said they were arrested in an unmarked area, and that she is still not sure whether they were apprehended in Iran or Iraq. Last week a document released by WikiLeaks clearly indicated that the hikers were arrested inside Iraqi territory. The document also says the three “were forewarned about going to the border area” and that the hikers had “an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on ___.” The redacted word is presumed to be “Iran.”
Former Iranian officials tell NEWSWEEK that the WikiLeaks documents are further proof that there is an understanding between Iranians and Americans in Iraq. “Two words, ‘criminal’ and ‘kidnapping,’ in the document are the clues to what happened,” says a former Iranian diplomat. “The report clearly indicates that the American forces did not want to agitate and provoke Iran; that the Americans knew about the hikers being arrested in Iraq all along and didn’t want to intensify the situation.”
The former Iranian officials claim that unlike the U.S., Iran has a haphazard foreign policy. “The American government is solely focused on Iran’s nuclear program and doesn’t want any other issue, such as skirmishes in Iraq, to distract from that focus,” says a former Iranian diplomat. “On the other hand, there seems to be no cohesion in our policies, and different groups try to poke the Americans in the eye in their own way.” The former officials blame this lack of coordination on the policies of Ahmadinejad’s government and a new generation of the Revolutionary Guards that have little or no expertise in military and intelligence matters. “Since last year’s presidential election [in June 2009], the Revolutionary Guards have taken over the country,” a former intelligence official said. “They are running the country’s politics, economy, judiciary, and even intelligence.”
And the former Iranian officials, who say they maintain contacts inside the Ahmadinejad government, told NEWSWEEK they don’t believe that the Revolutionary Guards knew what to do with the American prisoners until weeks after their arrest. “I know for a fact that the judiciary and Ahmadinejad got into a fight over the release of Sarah in September,” says a former intelligence officer. When the government announced Shourd would be released Sept. 9, Tehran’s prosecutor general, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, immediately announced that the judicial process had not been completed and that the release was not imminent. A former intelligence official told NEWSWEEK that it was only after a series of negotiations between the judiciary and the government that the Revolutionary Guard allowed Shourd to leave Tehran for Oman and eventually the U.S. “The judiciary made sure that Ahmadinejad was not able to take all the credit for her release,” said the ex-official. Instead, the Guards and the judges made sure that the credit went to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has the final say in all affairs of state.
Bauer and Fattal must have heard Khamenei’s name—he’s referred to as “agha” or “the master” by his followers—enough times during their hours of interrogation to realize that regaining their freedom lies in his hands. And as they walk about during their daily havakhori, they may well wonder what it will take to persuade the master to show them mercy. But a decision on clemency now seems far more complicated given the situation described by officials NEWSWEEK spoke with. “These young Americans are not guilty spies or innocent tourists,” said a former diplomat. “They are now pieces in a backgammon game between Iran and the United States, with each side trying to load his dice.”