- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It can no longer be denied: Iran is once again holding U.S. citizens hostage. Just as the Islamic regime grabbed the world’s attention 31 years ago when it took 52 American diplomats and embassy employees captive, it holds three young hikers, making them unwilling pawns in a geopolitical chess game with the West over Iran’s nuclear program. Once again, Iran is proving itself unworthy of a place among civilized nations.

The three were arrested last summer for purportedly straying across the Iranian border while hiking in Iraq and now languish in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. The Islamic regime contends that the arrests were lawful and Iran’s judicial system is treating the case in a normal fashion. But after nearly a year, the trio has not been charged with a crime and the charade of legitimacy is fooling no one.

Shane Bauer, 27, Josh Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 31, were arrested July 31, 2009, when, according to news reports, they crossed an unmarked border into Iran while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. They told authorities they must have strayed while following a trail leading to a waterfall, a local tourist attraction. Iran has said the three are suspected of spying and an investigation is ongoing. All three are graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, not exactly known as a hotbed of flag-waving Rambo types. Quite the contrary, the hikers have academic credentials in Middle Eastern and environmental studies that suggest not hostile intent, but rather a naive fascination with the exotic culture of the region. The fact that they ventured into an area where attitudes toward Americans are colored by U.S. involvement in two wars suggests a boldness born of innocence.

Iran has defied pleas for their release on humanitarian grounds from no less than globally respected Nobel Peace Prize winner and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued periodic statements calling for their release - the latest on June 13 - to no avail.

The mothers of the American detainees have spent the past 11 months petitioning Iran for their children’s release. Finally, in May, the regime allowed them to travel to Tehran and visit with their children. Hopes were high at the time that with Miss Shourd and Mr. Bauer suffering from health problems, the trio would freed. However, the parents were sent home in tears without them.

On Thursday, the three mothers dropped the pretense of deference to Iran’s legal process and issued a tough statement demanding the release of the three captives: “To continue to detain our children without regard for their legal and human rights reinforces suspicions that they are being held in a cynical attempt by Iran to exert leverage with the United States.” Additionally, Laura Fattal, mother of captive Josh Fattal, told Associated Press, “These kids are innocent, and Iran knows it.”

But Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is deeply immersed in a high-stakes match of wits with the West, and he is keeping pawns on the chessboard to protect his crucial piece: Iran’s nuclear program. The United Nations imposed a fourth set of punishing economic sanctions on Iran earlier this month, and they were followed by additional U.S. and European Union measures last week to close loopholes in previous trade restrictions. With U.S. citizens sitting in Evin Prison, Mr. Ahmadinejad can proceed with his uranium-enrichment activities knowing that American hands are tied by concern for the safety of the detainees. Many fear an Islamic bomb in the hands of Iran will constitute a permanent threat to the well-being of the Middle East and Europe.

For his part, President Obama has limited his options by choosing a course in foreign relations that responds to provocation with reconciliation. Accordingly, there is little hope that the White House will bare its teeth anytime soon in an effort to compel Tehran to return the hikers.

Still, Iran does not exist in a vacuum. Even Mr. Ahmadinejad, for all of his defiance of the international sanctions, must realize that the intentional victimization of innocents earns him pointed scorn from people of reason the world over. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Last year, American journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of espionage in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison. However, her sentence was reduced, she was sent back, and Iran benefited from a rare occasion of global plaudits. Likewise, releasing the U.S. hikers would demonstrate once again that even in the Islamic Republic of Iran, political calculation and humaneness are not always mutually exclusive.

In the meantime, the trio’s unenviable predicament should serve as a lesson to any who might be tempted to follow their frivolous footsteps in that perilous region this summer. U.S. citizens would be wise to steer well clear of Iran’s borders. Aside from the obvious personal danger of incarceration in a hostile nation, it is unfair for travelers to place American authorities in the awkward position of having to choose between the national security interests of 309 million citizens and the well-being of a few wayward adventurers.

Frank Perley is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times.