My students: Victims of Iran’s foreign policy

Majid Rafizadeh discusses the politics behind the imprisonment of his former students, Sarah Shourd and Shane Bauer.

poster iran hikers
Sarah Shourd’s interrogator told her he thought she was innocent, but was being used as a bargaining chip [GALLO/GETTY]

Having taught Sarah Emily Shourd and her fiancé Shane Michael Bauer in Damascus, Syria, I was able to learn about their goals and aspirations, one of which was to leave the comfort of their homes in the US to help poor communities living in the Middle East.

They strived to use their privileged status, education, and experiences to help those living under a dollar a day. Sarah and Shaun did this in various ways, such as teaching refugees in Damascus and helping the people to chart their way. Having gotten to know the couple, I learned that their intentions in the Middle East were not political, but humanitarian. 

I once asked Sarah, “Why would you leave the comforts of California to live in Syria, where the standard of living is deplorable and human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of press are being constantly violated by an oppressive regime?” She responded that it would be selfish of her to enjoy life there while people are suffering abroad, and that this approach fulfilled and satisfied her human needs.

Unfortunately, Sarah, Shaun, and their good friend Josh Felix Fattal are currently being held in an Iranian prison, not due to legal violations but because they were caught in an episode of political crossfire between the United States and Iran. Iran’s decision to release them on $500,000 bail once again underscores the Islamist regime’s twisted sense of “justice”, which Iranians as well as foreigners are constantly subjected to in order to advance the interests of the regime.

It was not until the day of Sarah’s conditional release, over a year after their initial detainment, that formal charges of espionage were brought against them. Since that time, efforts have continued – both through international campaigns and attempts to navigate the vagaries of the Iranian justice system – to secure the freedom of Shane and Josh.


“I know. You’re very good kids. I hope that Shane and Josh are free   very soon” – President Ahmadinejad [GALLO/GETTY]

When various media  met with Sarah Shourd during her recent visit to London, it became clear that the arrest and imprisonment of the Americans was an overtly political exercise from the outset – presumably as leverage for Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, which the US opposes. Additionally, this case has become a game of political football and a reflection of the tensions within the Iranian regime itself.

On the one hand, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed from the outset that he believed that these three hikers were innocent, and announced that they would be released.

As Sarah herself met with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York, shortly after her release, she explained that after presenting evidence of their innocence he said that he accepted it and said, “I know. You’re very good kids. I hope that Shane and Josh are free very soon. And that you can get married and have many children.”

Political bargaining chips

As lawyer and Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi points out, there are two legal approaches to this case. First, if these three American hikers are spies, as the Iranian government alleges, the evidence of their activity should be presented to the court. The fact is that the three hikers were arrested on the border, which means they had no opportunity to engage in activities of espionage.

According to international law, they should be released. Second, if they were arrested for crossing the border without possession of a visa, according to immigration law, they should be fined a sum equivalent to $100 each and then be released. Taking these facts into consideration, there is no legal justification for their imprisonment. 

Additionally, if they were intending to enter Iran to spy, Sarah would have worn a headscarf and Islamic dress so as not to be immediately recognised. As she states, “From the very beginning it was clear to me that the soldiers that detained us, that captured us and then took us to Iran, knew that we had no intention of coming to Iran.”

Your case has become political and I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. I believe you are innocent but I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference at this point.

         – Sarah Shourd’s interrogator

She goes on to highlight the obvious inconsistency in the allegations of espionage, clarifying, “I wasn’t wearing a headscarf or proper clothing, which is mandatory for a woman in Iran. The first thing the soldiers did was to stop in the first town that we came to and buy me a headscarf and a long dress to wear, because I was wearing shorts.”

The interrogators intentionally misled the hikers by outright telling them that they would not be charged with espionage. After two months of being held without charge, the case was apparently due to be closed. Sarah consequentially asked her interrogator, “Does that mean I’m going to trial? Am I finally going to see my lawyer?”

However, his answer was bleak. He said, “No, I’m really sorry to tell you this, but your case has become political and I don’t know what’s going to happen to you. I believe you’re innocent but I don’t know if it’s going to make any difference at this point.” 

Clearly, the captives had, by this time, become bargaining chips in a diplomatic game of political football, to be tossed back and forth in Iran.

Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian/Syrian Fulbright teaching scholar. He is currently conducting research at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and is a columnist for Harvard International Review.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.