- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Until a last-minute postponement, the United States was to go on trial today in a Tehran courtroom. Two American hikers arrested on espionage charges provided the ostensible cause for the proceedings, but Iran’s real target remains the longtime nemesis it calls “the Great Satan.” This prosecution of innocents underscores the widening gulf between the radical Islamic regime and the civilized world.

Shane Bauer and fellow hiker Josh Fattal, both 28, have spent the last 21 months in a Tehran prison for purportedly straying into Iran while trekking in the scenic mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Bauer’s fiancee, Sarah Shourd, was also arrested but was released on a half-million-dollar bail in September. She smartly vows not to return for the trial, while Iran promises she will be prosecuted in absentia. The range of penalties for a spying conviction in Iran includes death.

The trio’s story is that they were simply hiking a remote trail that had no border marking, and their alleged incursion was inadvertent. In most parts of the world, such tourist blunders are forgiven, but Iran is not like most places. The Americans are, for all intents, hostages meant to handcuff U.S. foreign policy. Since coming to power, the Islamic Republic has presented a belligerent stance toward the world, and hostage-taking has been an effective tool in its arsenal of aggression. During the critical days of their 1979 revolution, Islamist extremists took 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days, keeping America at bay while solidifying their power.

At the center of this controversy is Tehran’s sprint to obtain nuclear weapons. The incarceration of Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal acts as a restraint on American muscle in the nuclear standoff. One day before the hikers’ trial was scheduled to begin, the Islamic Republic announced that the U.N.-contested Bushehr nuclear power plant was fired up. The timing was hardly coincidental. During the past year, Iran has rebuffed calls for the hikers’ release from Washington, human-rights groups and even Desmond Tutu, who called the detention “morally unacceptable.”

On May 11 two years ago, the Islamic Republic released Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who had been sentenced to eight years in prison on espionage charges. While a similar dispensation for the hikers is possible when their trial begins, the Obama administration mustn’t allow its focus to stray from the larger issue of solving the Middle East nuclear threat. If the mullahs succeed in building an Iranian bomb, those who are hostage to the whims of a malevolent power will number in the millions.