Today's release of Americans Shane M. Bauer and Joshua F. Fattal, two American hikers detained in Iran in 2009 for suspected espionage, represents a diplomatic victory for the United States, which had lobbied strenuously on the hikers' behalf. As for Iran, the episode might signify something quite different: a deterioration in relations between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's clerical leadership.
First, the circumstances surrounding the release itself revealed an unusual degree of tension between the two parties. Following Ahmadinejad's announcement last week that the two hikers would be let go imminently, Iran's judiciary retorted that no such intentions existed and that, anyway, they would be the ones to make the decision.
"Ahmadinejad’s announcement about the imminent pardon of Bauer and Fattal was meant to give him a big boost in advance of his trip to New York to attend the opening of the UN General Assembly," said Asia Society Global Policy Programs Vice President Suzanne DiMaggio. "But the pushback he encountered from his own judiciary and the internal squabbling that followed only served to highlight his precarious position."
This disagreement is merely the latest example of a growing discord between the president and Iran's hard-line rulers.
Earlier this month, Ahmadinejad surprised Western observers by calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to stop his suppression of anti-government protests, an interesting about-face in light of Tehran's own crackdown of domestic dissent following Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election. Syria and Iran have been staunch allies since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and public recriminations between the two have been very rare.
Why has Ahmadinejad — a leader known for his fiery denunciations of the United States — adopted a more conciliatory stance? DiMaggio believes Ahmadinejad has domestic politics in mind.
"By going out on a limb on the hikers and other issues — including voicing support for a nuclear fuel swap with the U.S. and calling on Bashar al-Assad to end the crackdown on anti-government protesters — he’s attempting to separate himself from Iran’s ruling clerics," she said. "He knows his political survival is on the line."
Could the famously conservative president be transforming into a reformer?
"Probably not," added DiMaggio. "But in Iranian politics, stranger things have happened."
In June, Iranian-Canadian writer Maziar Bahari spoke to Asia Society about the current state of Iranian politics, believing that the opposition movement there is "still alive". In 2009 Bahari spent 118 in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison — the same prison that housed Bauer and Fattal — an experience that informed his subsequent memoir Then They Came for Me (excerpt here). Below is a video of Bahari's June 7, 2011 appearance at the Asia Society New York.