Three American hostages are Iran's answer to President Obama.
IRAN'S EXTREMIST rulers don't scruple at persecuting innocent people -- particularly foreigners -- to advance narrow political aims. Since staging what amounted to a coup during June's presidential election, the regime has arrested and prosecuted a number of Western citizens on bogus charges to reinforce its propaganda, which claims that post-election protests were organized by Western intelligence agencies. One, Iranian American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, was unjustly sentenced to 15 years in prison in October and now faces new charges.
But foreigners are persecuted not only to prove conspiracy theories; they can also be crudely exploited as bargaining chips. That seems to explain the case of three young Americans who apparently wandered across the Iraqi-Iranian border in July while hiking. They were apprehended, tossed into Tehran's notorious Evin prison and recently were charged with espionage. According to Politico.com, Iranian authorities have responded to requests for their release on humanitarian grounds by linking them to Iranians in U.S. custody -- some of whom have been charged with arms trafficking.
Shane Michael Bauer, 27, Joshua Felix Fattal, 27, and Sarah Emily Shourd, 31, may also be fodder for Iran's crude version of tit for tat. In 2007, U.S. forces arrested five Iranians in the city of Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, describing them as members of the al-Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps; they were not released until last July. Iraqi officials say that their inquiries to Iran about the American travelers, who were traveling in Kurdistan, have been answered with comparisons to the "Irbil five."
What's clear is that the three Americans are innocent of espionage, arms smuggling or of any other offense other than not being aware that they had crossed the border while hiking near a popular waterfall in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mr. Bauer is a freelance journalist; Ms. Shourd a teacher and writer; Mr. Fattal an environmentalist and inveterate traveler. They have now been held for more than 4 1/2 months, without access to a lawyer and with only limited contact with their families. On Monday Iran's foreign minister said they would be "tried by Iran's judiciary."
For the Obama administration, the hikers' treatment is but one more indication that the regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has no interest in the constructive "engagement" that Mr. Obama has offered. Such despicable persecution of innocent people only adds to the reasons the administration should focus its energies on isolating and imposing sanctions on the regime's leaders, while doing what it can to support the opposition Green movement.