26.9.11

Bauer and Fattal Are Not Political Victims: Irresponsible and Stupid, Definitely

The remaining two Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who wandered into Iranian territory and arrested by border guards were released after spending two years in prison on illegal entry and espionage charges. The other American, Sarah Shourd was released last year for medical reasons after being imprisoned for over a year. All three are enjoying celebrations befitting of heroes, but their actions were not those of heroes. They exercised such irresponsibility and stupidity that they deserve condemnation.

Hikers Knowingly Traveled Beyond Destination

The three hikers were on their way to see and photograph the Ahmed Awa Waterfall and looking at the map below, the tourist attraction is about 2 kilometers from the Iranian border. What's bothersome is that the hikers faced a grueling climb as they traveled beyond the falls towards the border. It could have been curiosity, or an attempt to claim that they traveled to Iran, or sheer stupidity. Whatever the reason, they had to know that the Iranian border was nearby and that the harsh terrain was a signal for them to turn back. The terrain is littered with steep mountains making the trip a strenuous endeavor. It's hard to imagine that Bauer, who claims to be fluent in Arabic, wasn't told of the dangers if they continued to hike beyond the falls. After the waterfall, the mountain becomes steep and there are no roads or water sources, local people say. "Iran lies just over the crest of the mountain," said Sabir, a Ahmed Awa resident. Why would they risk a treacherous terrain toward a hostile country and then claim they made a wrong turn? The answer is simple. They made an irresponsible decision to hike to Iran that ended up with the trio facing dire consequences. Then they lied about their decision and claimed stupidity.

Location of waterfall and Iranian border where hikers traveled and claimed to have taken a wrong turn.

Landmines Didn't Stop Them

Stupidity continued to haunt them because after the Iran and Iraq war during the 1980's, landmines were placed along the borders including the areas where the three hiked. Locals know that hiking outside of the dedicated paths is dangerous because of the landmines that are still in the region. Residents, many of whom have family on both sides of the border, say they avoid the mountains because the trails are narrow, difficult to navigate and rugged to climb. The landmines are located off of the trails that are used mostly by locals to graze their horses and by smugglers who carry supplies from Iran during the winter. Most visitors to this area do not venture past the waterfall, which is the area’s primary attraction. Again, Bauer, possibly the most seasoned of the three, must have known or been told of these dangers associated with landmines.

Bolstered Iranian Clout

But landmines weren't the only dangers in the area. The area itself is dangerous, and an American getting captured by Iran is going to be an international problem. By getting arrested, the three created a negotiating advantage for Iran. According to Massoumeh Torfeh, research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, she claims that it was likely that Shourd was released because Iran was trying to maximize the bargaining value of each hostage. She suggests that Shourd’s release may have been a quid pro quo for the return of Iranian nuclear scientist and defector Shahram Amiri. “That’s the way Iranian hostage-taking has always been,” says Torfeh. “So I would think [Iranian officials] have a couple more demands to make for the other two to be released." What were Bauer and Fattal bargained for? Political motives and positioning?

It is likely that all three hikers were used as political pawns. Not only could they be use as bargaining tools with the US, but also as pawns in the power struggle between president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the judiciary. Andre Tartar, a New York journalist claims that Ahmadinejad indicated that the two American hikers would be released on bail, "The country’s judiciary, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced it wasn’t in the president’s power to release the two Americans." The cleric-governed court system was likely sending a message to the Iranian president that he does not have a say in the courts, and that they did not like him using this matter to gain favor with the world, according to Tartar. What is certain is that the hikers heightened tensions between the US and Iran.

Cultural and Political Ignorance

Knowing that their stupidity caused an international dilemma, the families of Bauer, Shourd and Fattal began to defend them from criticism .On their web site Freethehikers.org they wrote, "Shane, Josh and Sarah care greatly about the world in which we live. They admire and respect different cultures and religions and share a love of travel that has taken them to many countries," the families write. "That is why they went to Kurdistan, not because they wanted to enter Iran." If they respected the different cultures, then they should have respected the dangerous situation of being an American near an Iranian border. Bauer claims that, "We may never know," referring whether they ever crossed into Iran while hiking. But that's not point. The point is being in such a vulnerable and dangerous location and claiming ignorance. That's not good enough. If they understood anything about religion and politics in that part of the world, then they wouldn't have placed themselves in such a vulnerable situation.

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