- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two American hikers held in Iran for more than 18 months on espionage charges are facing conviction for the “crime” of getting lost. The Islamic republic, however, deserves its own measure of guilt. With tens of thousands of freedom-seeking protesters crowding the streets of the Iranian capital Monday, it is clear the Islamic regime lost its way decades ago.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal appeared in Tehran Revolutionary Court for a closed-door session on Feb. 6 with a defense lawyer they had not seen since September. The trial’s location, where high-profile prosecutions of protesters involved in the June 2009 demonstrations were held, symbolizes the importance the nation’s ruling mullahs attach to the case. Having already executed at least 87 of Iran’s own citizens since Jan. 1, the hard-liners are sending a message to the world: Don’t mess with Tehran.

Suspicions were raised from the moment the Americans were seized on July 31, 2009, that the case was more about international brinkmanship than border enforcement. On that day, Mr. Bauer, Mr. Fattal, both 28 then, and Sarah Shourd, 32, purportedly crossed an unmarked boundary into Iran while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. The trio were taken to Tehran and imprisoned while authorities considered charging them with espionage. Miss Shourd was released on $500,000 “bail” in September. Fortunate to gain her freedom, she did not return for the trial - not that anyone expected she would. “Bail” was a euphemism for a less honorable word: ransom.

The remaining pair of hapless hikers now on trial have become a bargaining chip in the high-stakes match of wits with Washington over the future of Iran’s nuclear program. Coercive economic sanctions have had no effect, and January talks in Istanbul between the regime and the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany failed to produce results. The international community fears it’s only a matter of time before Iran can field a nuclear weapon.

The consequence of that is significant. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad enjoys his role as nemesis of America. On Feb. 11, the 32nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, he told a Tehran rally, “Despite all the [West’s] complicated and satanic designs … a new Middle East is emerging without the Zionist regime and U.S. interference, a place where the arrogant powers will have no place,” according to the Associated Press.

Iran’s mullahs, who control the judiciary, understand well the advantage of holding American lives in their hands. They employed a similar strategy during their 1979 revolution, using 52 U.S. Embassy employees as hostages to keep American power at bay. By putting the hikers - representatives of the “Great Satan” - on trial, the regime hopes to keep the spotlight off its own vulnerabilities as protesters bring the spirit of Cairo to the streets of Tehran.

Even if convicted, Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal eventually could find their liberty, as American journalist Roxana Saberi was released after her bogus conviction for espionage in 2009. Once the bargaining chip is off the table, President Obama should order the State Department to remove the Iranian resistance from its list of foreign terrorist organizations, where it was wrongly placed by the Clinton administration in 1997 as a sop to the Islamic regime. The move, while largely symbolic, would at least put America on the right side of those seeking freedom.