Iran says hikers have ties to U.S. intelligence

Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

(04-08) 18:15 PDT BERKELEY — Iran appears to have hardened its position on three UC Berkeley graduates who have been held in the country since last summer, accusing them of having links to U.S. intelligence.

The charge, made by Iran’s intelligence minister in an interview on state television, elicited strong denials Thursday from the U.S. State Department and the families of the prisoners, who were arrested after hiking across the border from Iraq.

It also struck experts as an orchestrated move in a high-stakes chess game between Iran and the United States over nuclear ambitions and other issues.

“Clearly, these unlucky hikers have been caught up in international politics,” said Mark Juergensmeyer, director of the Global and International Studies department at UC Santa Barbara. “The message is loud and clear: It screams for a prisoners’ exchange and shows that they are being kept as hostages to be used as negotiating pawns.”

Juergensmeyer said the United States “cannot cave in to such tactics, of course, and the best hope is that Iran will become weary of such games and eventually release these young Californians, as they’ve released other hostages in the past.”

Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi’s accusations were described on Iran’s English-language satellite channel Press TV on Thursday. They come a month after Sarah Shourd, 31, and Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 27, were allowed to call home.

rrested on hike

The three were arrested on July 31. Friends said the three had been backpacking to see a waterfall during a break from teaching jobs in Damascus, Syria. Their families maintain that the hikers strayed across an unmarked border accidentally.

The intelligence minister said in the television interview that Iran has “credible evidence” that the three were linked to U.S. intelligence, but did not elaborate other than to say that the information would be released soon.

U.S. State Department spokesman Darby Holladay said Thursday that there is “absolutely no credence to any allegation or assertions that the three American detained hikers in Iran are affiliated with any U.S. intelligence agency.”

The hikers’ families also responded to the report, releasing a joint statement.

“News reports, such as the one today, are totally unfounded and bear no relation to who Shane, Sarah and Josh are or what they were doing,” the families said Thursday. “Allegations that they are spies are ridiculous. Our loved ones’ continued detention and the psychological stress they are made to endure are unjustified and we again appeal to Iran to allow them to return home.”

argaining chips

Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, said Thursday that there was “no question” that Iran was using the three Americans as bargaining chips.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said he would like to see the hikers released, but that the decision ultimately rested with the judiciary. He has also suggested that the United States release several Iranians imprisoned in this country.

“In recent days, the rhetoric between the Obama administration and the regime has become particularly heated,” Milani said, “with the administration’s exclusion of Iran from the no-nuclear strike policy, pressures for more economic sanctions and Ahmadinejad’s particularly outlandish verbal lashings against President Obama.

“And thus,” he said, “it was no surprise, at least to me, that such an announcement was made.”

The American hikers, friends have said, were anything but moles for the government. Bauer and Fattal once lived in the same Oakland co-op and, while enrolled at UC Berkeley, taught a class called, “Liberation and reality: moving toward a collective autonomy,” through the student-run DeCal program.

Recently, Bauer was living in Damascus, where he was working as a photojournalist. Fattal has worked and lived at a sustainable living research center in Oregon. Sarah Shourd has been a tutor with AmeriCorps, and has worked with a tutoring service in Berkeley and a charter elementary school in Oakland.

o word on visit

Mothers of the Americans said they applied for visas in January to visit their children in prison, but have not been told whether they will be allowed to enter Iran. Diplomats from the Swiss Embassy visited the Americans twice, most recently in October, and reported they were healthy.

Supporters have planned vigils around the world for Sunday, marking 250 days that the three have been held. One of the vigils will be held at 1 p.m. at the Eucalyptus Grove, near Oxford and Center streets, on the UC Berkeley campus.

E-mail Henry K. Lee at

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~ by fredfelleman on April 8, 2010.

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