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EDITORIAL: Obama’s Iran hostage crisis

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Americans Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer are scheduled to face trial Sunday in Iran on charges of illegal entry and espionage. They and Sarah Shourd, who was later released, were detained by Iranian forces two years ago while hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Whether they strayed over a poorly marked border or were seized on Iraqi territory is unclear. Either way, these Berkeley-educated social activists don't fit the profile of clandestine operatives sent to infiltrate the Islamic republic. The charges are farcical, and the hikers should be freed.

The two Americans are being held in Evin Prison, Tehran's central clearing house for dissidents, political prisoners and others who fall afoul of the Islamic regime. Miss Shourd was released in September 2010 after enduring 410 days of solitary confinement and after Iran was paid half a million dollars, which Tehran called bail money but was more akin to ransom. After her release, she told of beatings, isolation, threats of summary execution and other mistreatment at the hands of Iranian authorities.

The Obama administration protested the hikers' detention but hasn't made their release a priority. Raising this case to the level of a "hostage crisis" with Iran wouldn't sit well with a president who already smarts under unflattering comparisons to failed President Jimmy Carter. On June 21, when the upcoming trial was announced, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Iran should "do the right thing and allow them to come home." Thanks, but basing U.S. policy on the hope the mullahs will do the right thing hasn't worked on other critical issues and won't work here.

There is some small reason for optimism that the situation may be resolved favorably. In 2003, an Iranian reformist pollster and former "student" hostage-taker at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was convicted of espionage for publishing a poll showing that 74 percent of Iranians favored dialogue with America. His conviction was overturned by Iran's Supreme Court after his lawyers cited a ruling by the Iranian parliament's Committee on National Security that no state of war existed between America and Iran. This defense also was used successfully to secure the freedom of U.S. journalist Roxana Saberi in 2009. Granted, the premise is questionable; Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan constitutes acts of war by any other name.

On Tuesday, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the nominee for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that there is intelligence to support the theory that Iran is planning a mass-casualty attack on departing U.S. forces in Iraq - akin to the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. service personnel - in order to be able to claim they drove the Americans out of the country. If Iran's high court wants to pretend hostilities don't exist and free the American hostages, then so be it. They can do the right thing for the wrong reason.

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