Three American hikers started their second year in captivity in Iran on Sunday, and the world finally has begun to recognize the nature of their predicament: They are hostages.
But options are few for gaining their release. For President Obama in dealing with Iran, every diplomatic matter large and small hinges on the central issue of the Islamic regime's obsessive quest for nuclear weapons. Unfortunate as it is for the three hikers, the president's first obligation is not to their safety but the security of the United States. In the coming months, their fate might well be subordinated to the struggle between the two nations.
Shane Bauer, 27, Josh Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31, were arrested July 31, 2009, when they purportedly crossed an unmarked border into Iran, according to news reports at the time, while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Nation magazine reported in June that two witnesses from a Kurdish village have said the Americans actually were on the Iraqi side of the border when they were arrested. They have been held in Tehran's Evin Prison ever since except for a brief visit in May with their mothers in a hotel.
Iran has said the trio are suspected of spying. But the fact that they have not been charged with a crime after one year indicates that they are being held as an insurance policy against U.S. intervention in Iran's nuclear program.
Pleas for the hikers' release have risen to a crescendo marking the first anniversary of their captivity. "One year on from their arrest it appears clear that the Iranian authorities do not have substantial grounds to prosecute these three individuals, and we fear that they may be held on account of their nationality," said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program, in a statement on Friday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior leaders have made assertions, he said, that suggest the Americans are being held as a means of pressuring the U.S. government to make diplomatic concessions. "If this were the case, then the continuing detention of these three individuals would amount to hostage-taking and be a very serious abuse of human rights," Mr. Smart said.
Both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton carefully avoided the H-word on Friday when each called for the hikers' release. In obviously coordinated scripts, Mr. Obama referred to the hikers' incarceration as "unjust detention" while Mrs. Clinton said "their continued detention is unjustifiable."
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, was more direct on the reason for their captivity. "It's evident that the Iranian government sees the three hikers as bargaining chips," Mr. Sadjadpour told the Christian Science Monitor.
Iran has a history of taking hostages to force political concessions. In 1979, religious revolutionaries took 52 American diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days, successfully keeping the United States at bay while consolidating their Islamic regime. Mr. Ahmadinejad frequently has alluded to the endgame of the revolution: a world governed by Islam. The means to that end is a nuclear-armed Iran capable of obliterating Israel and other nations that object.
Meanwhile, the Islamic regime continued to stir the Middle East caldron with a barrage of statements - some bellicose, others conciliatory - seemingly intended to keep its adversaries off-balance and buy more time for its nuclear program, which analysts estimate could produce a weapon within a year.
In late July, the head of Iran's nuclear energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran is initiating an $8 million nuclear fusion research program. Because successful production of fusion energy has eluded advanced nations despite spending billions on research over decades, the announcement likely is nothing more than a nose-thumbing exercise intended to annoy the West.
Last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad claimed - without documentation - on state-run TV that the United States intends to attack "at least two countries" in the Middle East in order to "wage a psychological war on Iran." Yet he also announced last week that his country is prepared to stop enriching high-grade uranium and restart talks with the United States, Russia and France over a nuclear fuel agreement.
For his part, Mr. Obama has made reconciliation with the Muslim world an overarching goal of his administration's foreign policy, shedding doubt on the notion that Iran has anything to fear from a U.S. military strike on its nuclear facilities. More likely is a 21st-century version of mutually assured destruction (MAD), the doctrine of deterrence embraced by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the last century, in which each side understood a nuclear attack by one side would result in the destruction of both. In this scenario, rather than the Soviet Union, the United States would be locked in a contest of nerves with a nuclear Iran - not a comforting thought.
For Mr. Obama to gamble U.S. security on a bet that Iran will become a responsible member of the nuclear family of nations would be a risky game. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the hostage situation he faces now with three American hikers would mushroom into a much larger one with the Middle East, then Europe and then, eventually, the United States endangered by an Iranian bomb. At that point, we will all be hostages.
Frank Perley is senior editor for opinion for The Washington Times.
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