The Propaganda Value of a Detained Journalist

New America Media, News Analysis, William O. Beeman Posted: Aug 06, 2009

Editor’s Note: New America Media correspondent Shane Bauer is one of three Americans presumed to be detained by the Iranian government near the Iran-Iraq border last weekend. Commentator William O. Beeman writes that their situation raises profound political questions.

“In the wrong place at the wrong time” is an apt description for three Americans currently being detained in Iran. They will likely be released, but not before Iranian authorities have wrung maximal publicity over their situation, painting them as Western intelligence operatives. The process could take months.

The timing for this event could not be more inopportune. Iran is on high emotional alert. It is flush with righteous indignation and paranoia vis-à-vis Western nations. It has undergone a contentious election where opponents of President Ahmadinejad were accused of collaboration with Western powers. Understanding the current state of mind in Iran is crucial to predicting the fate of the three travelers.

Certainly people all over the world in wilderness areas make inadvertent trips across international borders without incident. The Iraqi Kurdistan border, where journalists and adventurers Shane Bauer, Sara Shourd and Joshua Fattal entered Iran on July 31 is unmarked. The three seem to have been innocent, if a little naïve. They left an indisposed companion, Shon Meckfessel, and their belongings behind in their hotel room in the town of Sulaimaniyah. They reportedly had no extensive gear on their persons, suggesting they were on a short day trip.

However, the border itself is one of the prime difficulties in their case. Its remoteness has made it a prime area for illicit traffic in both directions. Smugglers operate freely across the border. Iranians escaping to the West have used it freely. More importantly, however, the United States and Israel have been suspected of infiltrating operatives into Iran through this area.

Iran has arrested a number of “suspicious” individuals over the past few years. They are universally accused of spying and of complicity in trying to foment a “velvet” revolution, similar to those underwritten by the Bush administration throughout the former Soviet Union. Celebrated incarcerations of individuals like Woodrow Wilson Center administrator Haleh Esfandiari, journalist Roxana Saberi and photojournalist Iason Athanasiadis (also known as Jason Fowdon) were also based on accusations of spying.

Predictably then, Bauer, Shourd and Fattal have also been labeled as spies. Past precedent in these earlier cases suggests what will occur for the detainees. First, they are likely to receive humane treatment. Being Americans they have attracted extensive international attention. Iranian officials have been careful to make sure that their international “guests” are treated well. Past detainees report that they were comfortably housed, well fed and allowed outside reading material and contacts.

Second, the Americans will likely be released, as others in their situation have been, after extensive investigation.

Third, they will be used to make political points by Iranian authorities—both for internal and for international consumption.

Iran will insist that their detention is legal, since every nation has the right to defend its borders. Even the most die-hard American opponents of Iranian policy will not be able to counter this assertion.

However, it is predictable that there will be accusations that the hikers never crossed the border, and that Iran grabbed them illegally. They may be labeled as “hostages” in the U.S. media.

Iran will also try to get the three detainees to admit and apologize for their actions, preferably on television. There will be attempts to make them admit that they were engaged in spying as a condition of their release. This will serve a number of purposes. First, it will bolster the image of “Iran under siege” from the West, shoring up the credentials of conservative leaders. Second, it will serve to taint the opposition to the current leadership. Attempts will be made to tie these three to presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Iran may also try to use these three as bargaining chips in ongoing negotiations with the United States over a variety of matters of controversy including relief from economic sanctions and relaxation of criticism of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Finally, Iranian authorities will likely pardon them, commute an imposed sentence, or allow them to leave the country on bail pending trial as a show of generosity.

The saddest part of cases like this is that the fact that the United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran makes negotiations next to impossible. Either Washington must rely on the Swiss embassy (which represents U.S. affairs in Tehran), or resort to public pleas and threats. This gives the United States very little leverage. Extraordinary measures, such as former President Bill Clinton’s trip to North Korea to secure the release of journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling, would probably work with Iran, but would trigger huge, hostile reactions from the Republican Party who would claim that the Obama administration was unduly “dignifying” the Iranian regime.

One long-shot might be to appeal to Syria to intervene for the detainees' release. Shane Bauer had been reporting from Syria prior to this incident and had established his bona fides as a serious reporter there. Iran is not influenced by many outside nations, but they still retain close ties to Damascus. The United States has also been warming to Syria recently, so this mediation might conceivably help shorten the detention.

Sadly, we can foresee future incidents of this sort from time to time until U.S.-Iranian affairs stabilize. It is not necessary for the United States to approve of the actions of a nation like Iran to seek regularized diplomatic relations. This case proves clearly why the communication opened through stable diplomatic channels is so essential in today’s international community.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He has conducted research in Iran for more than 40 years. His latest book is, 'The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other' (Chicago, 2008).

Related Articles:

NAM Executive Editor on Shane Bauer

NAM Correspondent Detained in Iran


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User Comments


Jsmith on Aug 12, 2009 at 09:39:31 said:

Having some experience in the general area, I can assure you that it is the very pinnacle of foolishness to be near, or especially to cross, that border. It is an unmarked border and, as explained in the article, the area is rife with all sorts of crime. The Iranians, of course, are under no obligation to let our people go.

The issue, by the way, has very little to do with US-Iranian relations. This is completely an internal issue for Iran, which detains all foreigners (as most countries do) that they find wandering around their country without the proper documentation.

I anticipate a long visit to the finest of Iranian jails for these three -- a suitable punishment for a very foolish act.


Dave Kimble on Aug 06, 2009 at 18:50:39 said:

It is said the group had travelled from Syria to Turkey to Iraq, presenting their visas at Irbil, then on to Sulimaniya, then to Ahmad Awa, then over the border into Iran, all in the space of three days. I cannot imagine how these people could be in so much of a hurry to go for a hike in the mountains in the middle of summer, when the temperature in Baghdad was 45°C/113°F.

If you use Google Earth to view Ahmad Awa looking towards the border, you can see the town is 561 metres altitude, and the lowest pass on the border is 1,875 m, so they would have had to climb up 1,314 m/4,311 ft of mostly barren rocky steep slope. Hardly something that happens by accident.

Beeman mentions the cross-border smuggling, but fails to mention the Kurdish seperatists, which most likely explains the presence of the Iranian border guards. The whole thing smells so badly, that the Iranians have every right to treat them as spies.

It should also be noted that Saberi admitted having the documents she was accused of, and that Haleh Esfandiari is actively engaged in soft revolution in Iran, see www.peakoil.org.au/news/index.php?esfandiari.htm

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