- The Washington Times - Monday, September 20, 2010

Pretenses aside, Iran’s release of American hiker Sarah Shourd last week on $500,000 bail was an act of ransom. The freeing of her two male companions, who still languish in a Tehran prison, would help defuse the storm clouds of conflict building over the Islamic republic, threatening to overshadow the wayward hikers and sweep them into obscurity.

“Bail” customarily is a monetary deposit paid for a defendant’s release with the understanding that the suspect will return for trial or forfeit the money. But in Iran’s legal system, bail is a euphemism for extortion. Once a defendant pays up and is freed, the charges quietly are dropped and the money is pocketed. It is a safe bet that Miss Shourd, 32, will never return to Iran for trial.

Miss Shourd’s fiance, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal, both 28, already have spent nearly 14 months in jail after purportedly straying into Iran while hiking in Iraq near the common border. The world community should demand their release. Given the unpredictable nature of Iran’s leadership, removing them from the geopolitical chessboard would allow national interest rather than concern for individuals to guide U.S. relations with Iran.

This is so because Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the appearance of a leader who has lost his way. At home, he recently has gotten crossways with the judicial authorities. In the case of Miss Shourd, he announced that she would be released only to be overruled by the independent judiciary, which then ordered her freed on its own authority rather than his. He also is in the midst of a constitutional conflict over his refusal to appropriate funds for an urban rail line for Tehran that was approved by the Iranian parliament, triggering a political deadlock.

Abroad, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s image is equally odious. Iran’s relentless pursuit of nuclear technology and his frequent threats against neighboring nations, particularly Israel, has convinced the United Nations that nuclear weapons, not nuclear power plants, are his goal. Refusal to allow inspectors to examine Iran’s facilities has triggered round after round of economic sanctions. Last week, he reiterated to NBC News that no sanctions would dissuade him from staying the course and that U.N. nuclear inspectors would be barred from the country. Such talk has earned him recent criticism from former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has accused him of soft-pedaling the serious impact of sanctions on his nation’s economy.

While in New York this week to attend the U.N. General Assembly, Mr. Ahmadinejad finds himself at loggerheads with a world body increasingly exasperated by his belligerence. Like his late Iraqi neighbor Saddam Hussein, Mr. Ahmadinejad appears stubborn in the extreme. Ensuring the release of the remaining hikers as a humanitarian gesture would be a small step toward proving that view wrong. Barring that, world leaders in New York should present him with a gesture of their own that conveys the courtesy he deserves: a Bronx cheer.