Iran is the largest nation-state supporter of armed resistance to Israel’s occupation, a country whose current leadership justifies seemingly provocative actions in the Middle East as countermeasures to Israeli-American expansionism. As popular revolutions designed at securing freedom and throwing off the domination of authoritarian rulers, many of which are U.S. clients, Iran has expressed an official foreign policy that purports to stand with a self-determined Middle East, directed by the will of its people.
So why is the largest national patron of the Palestinian struggle and self-proclaimed ally of Arab world liberation jailing American solidarity activists who shine a light on the systematic Israeli abuse of Palestinians?
On February 6, 2011 Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — American citizens and global justice activists — went on trial behind closed doors in Tehran on espionage charges after being arrested by Iran near the Iran-Iraq border in 2009. Along with Sarah Shourd (Bauer’s fiancée), the three were allegedly captured at gunpoint by Iranian forces while hiking in the Iraqi north. Whether they had accidentally crossed the border into Iran or Iranian forces were operating on the Iraqi side of the border is disputed.
The three were placed in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, and while Shourd (who was kept in solitary confinement for a year) was released on $500,000 bail, returning to the United States in September on what the Iranian government has called compassionate grounds, Bauer and Fattal remain in prison. Shourd has refused to return to the Iran for the trial, pleading not guilty in absentia, and her bail is being revoked as a result.
The Iranian government has called this a straight espionage case and tried to engage in high stakes negotiations with the United States for a prisoner exchange, a position unquestioningly promoted and publicized by Iran’s Press TV network. However, looking at Bauer’s and Fattal’s political track records, it becomes clear that Washington is unlikely to trade much to retrieve outspoken critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Meeting in London with Shon Meckfessel (dubbed the fourth hiker) in July, he discussed Shourd, Bauer and Fattal’s active commitment to global justice and the absurdity of calling them U.S. spies. On the hiking trip with the other three, he had stayed at his hotel due to a cold the day they were captured by Iranian authorities.
Meckfessel talked about how prior to the trip to Iraq the three were in Israel and the Occupied Territories, visiting long-time friend Tristan Anderson in hospital. Anderson was critically injured when an Israeli soldier shot him in the head with a high-velocity tear-gas canister during an anti-wall demonstration in the West Bank town of Nalin. He has been featured several times on Iran’s foreign service Press TV network as an international solidarity activist hero, however his close friendship to the jailed hikers and his pleas for Bauer and Fattal’s release have not.
"I find it astounding that over a year and half into this that Iran as well as western media coverage have utterly neglected the considerable evidence to the reason for our presence in the region, being our long public record of our critical journalism and education in the region," Meckfessel said over the phone just after the first hearing of the trial.
Shourd, Fattal, and Bauer, according to Meckfessel, had made close connections with people in the West Bank popular struggles against Israel’s wall in the town of Bilin and the family of Bassem and Jahwar Abu Rahmah. Bassem was killed in April 2009 after being shot in the stomach by a tear gas canister during a demonstration, while Jahwar died on January 1, 2011 resulting from heavy teargas exposure during a demonstration the previous day.
Meckfessel highlighted that at the time of their arrest, Bauer — a critical journalist in the Middle East — was finishing an article on the effect of Israel’s use of the American made high-velocity teargas canisters on the Palestinian anti-wall struggles. The story was never published due to Bauer’s detainment.
It is likely for this reason that the United States seems to be putting little effort into securing the release of Fattal and Bauer, and would be unlikely to engage in a high profile trade for them. This is re-enforced by the assessment in an U.S. Embassy cable — part of the WikiLeaks releases — which seeks to construe events in a manner that allows the United States to blame the hikers while distancing the government from any responsibility for their protection.
"The lack of coordination on the part of these hikers, particularly after being forewarned, indicates an intent to agitate and create publicity regarding international policies on Iran," reads the cable titled "(Criminal event) Kidnapping" from July 2009.
This lack of willingness to engage in a meaningful trade to protect its critical citizens is indicative of the Obama administration’s approach in the region, which refuses to use its leverage to protect the people making democratic demands of its client states, while scoring rhetorical points with Iran, where it has little leverage. It is the other side of the same coin that shows an Iranian position of posturing on the Palestinian struggle and Middle Eastern liberation while jailing the allies of that struggle for personal gain and repressing local demands that echo the regional call from the street.
As a result of this reality, Meckfessel has been campaigning in the United States and Europe to raise the activist profile of the hikers among the European left, Palestinian solidarity activists, and the anti-war movement to generate pressure through a dialogue between social movements and Iran. "They are stuck between states," Meckfessel said about a situation where the hikers lacked strong national advocacy. "Iran cares about alienating pro-Palestinian activists and once these people find out about this, it will alienate them [from Iran]," he added.
It is a point made clear in Bauer’s testimony at the first hearing of his trial, where he was consistently denied access with his lawyer by the court. "I have never had any contact with any U.S. intelligence services in Iraq or America; I am a journalist and my purpose in my work is to expose and investigate the wrong doing of my government, especially in the Middle East," he told the Iranian court on Feb. 6.
Nonetheless, trying Bauer and Fattal (and Shourd in absentia) indicates that Iran is more concerned with using anti-war and pro-Palestine activists as pawns in their negotiating games with Washington than respecting the anti-war movement and Palestinian struggle. Labeling as American spies and jailing the very people who are prime examples of international activism that Iran and their international press services seem to love promoting makes any genuine sentiment to those claims ring hollow.
Instead, the continued jailing of Fattal and Bauer makes Iran’s commitment to the success of the Palestinian struggle, and its rhetoric against the American government’s aggressive intrusions into the Middle East appear hypocritical. It also underscores the motivational fig leaf behind backing democratic revolutions in the Arab world while trying to nudge Islamic elements into the foreground and brutally cracking down on popular unrest based on similar discontents at home.
This begs the question, is Iran’s sending of arms to Gaza and constant diplomatic maneuvering to pressure Israel really being done to help secure Palestinian liberation or simply an extension of serving their own interests by using the Palestinian struggle?
This trial, which Iran appears to seek negotiating leverage through while the United States spins the situation for its own interests, exemplifies a Middle East where those committed to freedom and self-determination are being trapped between America and Iran.
Jesse Rosenfeld is a freelance journalist based in Ramallah and Tel Aviv since 2007. He has published with the Nation, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera English, the Irish Times, the National, the Guardian — Comment Is Free, the Daily Star, Haaretz English, and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.