Hoping for a Ramadan Gift

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, two American hikers captured along the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan in July 2009, were sentenced Sunday by Iran's Revolutionary Court to eight years in prison. The verdict drew sharp criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said the United States was "deeply disappointed" in Iranian judicial authorities and that "it is time for [Bauer and Fattal] to return home and be reunited with their families." The announcement came as a surprise because senior Iranian officials had previously indicated that the pair might be pardoned during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Analysts remain hopeful that Bauer and Fattal, who have 20 days to file an appeal, could still be headed home, however. "There have been cases in the past where the courts issue a shockingly high verdict in the beginning. Then, by pardoning, they try to come across as showing leniency," said Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. "It is possible that this is what is happening."

Parsi emphasized that the hikers' case has been mired in the diplomatic tensions between Tehran and Washington. "They are pawns in a larger game being played by Iran and the United States," he said, noting that the duo's predicament has more to do with Iran's nuclear ambitions than the dubious spying charges trumped up by Iranian authorities.

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation agreed. Every diplomatic maneuver "should be seen through the prism of the nuclear program," he told Foreign Policy. "Iran wants to present [the two hikers] as bargaining chips."

Tehran is also under a tremendous amount of pressure as a result of international sanctions, according to Nader. "So the hikers are part of the leverage that Iran has in that game," he said.

But the jailed hikers are not just fueling animosity between countries. "They are also an internal football," said Parsi, who believes that the Iranian government is split on what to do with Bauer and Fattal. "There are elements especially in the judiciary that don't want to give them up for political reasons, but there other factions that realize that this is costing Iran more than they are gaining."

In particular, Iran's foreign ministry appears ready allow the hikers to return to the United States. Perhaps, as the New York Times has suggested, this is because it gets to deal with the international ramifications of the debacle. The judiciary, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with currying favor with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomenei and is therefore taking a harder line.

Despite Clinton's pledge to "continue to call and work for [the hikers'] immediate release," there is not much the U.S. can do at this point, according to analysts. Massoud Shafei, the hikers' lawyer, remains hopeful that they will be pardoned as a gesture of goodwill during Ramadan. Praying for a Ramadan gift appears to be the State Department's strategy, too.


About that earthquake...

As you know if you live on the East Coast of the United States or if you read websites other than this one or watch TV, a 5.9-magnitude earthquake hit near Richmond, Virginia. We felt pretty strong shock waves here at FP world headquarters. (At least they seemed pretty strong to me. I'm a lifelong East Coaster and have nothing to compare it to.) And tremors were felt as far north as Massachusetts. This is obviously not a foreign-policy story by any means, but here are a few observations we can make that touch on the topics FP normally covers.

Events like this are big news when they happen in places with lots of journalists. All in all, this was a fairly minor occurrence. No one appears to have been hurt, and structural damage was minor. Nonetheless, it's gotten wall-to-wall coverage on U.S. cable networks, even displacing the storming of Muammar al-Qaddafi's compound as the top story of the day. It's a similar story on Twitter. If a story of this magnitude happened in Indiana, not to mention, say, Argentina or Tanzania, it would not get anywhere near this level of attention.

Relatedly: Beware the trend stories! You can expect a steady stream of scaremongering stories in the next few days predicting all sorts of dire scenarios for the East Coast's geological future. This nearly always happens after major quakes. "Earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan? By my geometric calculations, California must be next!" The Earth experiences an average of 16 major quakes -- above 7.0 -- per year. They only become major media events when they happen in highly inhabited areas. Earthquakes on the East Coast are unusual, but hardly unheard of. Virginia seems to have a noticeable one every few decades.

Third: Expect the post-Fukushima nuclear debate to start up again. The quake triggered the shutdown of the North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia. Although backup power stayed on and the plant's systems functioned as they were supposed to, that's not going to be much comfort after recent events in Japan. North Anna is less than 50 miles from Richmond and about 90 from Washington -- shorter than the distance from Fukushima to Tokyo.

The United States hasn't had the same post-Fukushima nuclear backlash we've seen in some European countries. Will this now change? Stay tuned.

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