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How American hikers’ release is playing in Iran

The release today of two Americans imprisoned since 2009 on charges of illegal entry and espionage has as much to do with internal political rivalries as it does with Iran flexing its political muscles against the United Stat

The release today of two Americans imprisoned since 2009 on charges of illegal entry and espionage has as much to do with internal political rivalries as it does with Iran flexing its political muscles against the United States, say analysts inside the Islamic Republic.

The Iranian judiciary freed Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer on $500,000 bail each after a week of public wrangling between the courts and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had promised last week that they would be released within two days.

Analysts say the judiciary’s posturing was meant to weaken the president’s standing both globally and on the Iranian street, where improved relations with the US is considered the “golden trophy” of Iranian politics.

But with Mr. Ahmadinejad set to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York tomorrow, Iran also couldn’t afford to pass up an opportunity to shore up goodwill with the US and other international powers – a step that could help restart negotiations over Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

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“It put some pressure on the president and reminded him that he can’t do anything he wants. They are doing everything in their power to limit his authority and show how powerless a president can be in Iran if he doesn’t have the Supreme Leader’s support,” says Iranian blogger and news commentator Camelia Entekhabifard. “At the same time, Ahmadinejad will be attending the General Assembly meeting tomorrow, and they don’t want him to be in New York empty-handed.”

Growing rift between Ahmadinejad, rival conservatives

Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer were sentenced by Iranian courts in August to eight years in prison for allegedly crossing Iraq’s border into Iran to spy for the United States. Their traveling companion, Sarah Shourd, was also sentenced in absentia after being released on humanitarian grounds a year ago.

On Sept. 13, Ahmadinejad announced in an interview with NBC that Iran would release the men as a “unilateral humanitarian gesture.” Hours later, the Iranian judiciary commuted its sentence against the two Americans but the following day publicly refuted the president’s announcement, telling state media that reports of an imminent release were “wrong.” 

The president’s quarrels with members of Iran’s traditional conservative establishment and rivals within the judiciary have reached new heights during the past year. Even senior members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who have previously been politically aligned with Ahmadinejad, engaged in public arguments with the president.

Most notably, Ahmadinejad has sparred with high-ranking members of Iran’s clerical establishment, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. A prime point of contention is the president’s controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who many rival conservatives claim is part of a “deviant” current looking to weaken the role of the clergy in the Islamic Republic and expand Ahmadinejad’s clout in Iran by improving relations with the US. 

Though Ayatollah Khamenei has for most of Ahmadinejad’s presidency generally approved his administration’s expansion of power at the expense of Iran’s parliament, he has at the same time encouraged Iran’s various political factions to maneuver against one another in an effort to maintain political equilibrium. In May, Ahmadinejad received a rare but significant rebuke from Khamenei after firing intelligence chief Heydar Moslehi without first obtaining the supreme leader’s support.

Why Iranians are apathetic about Americans’ release

But despite concerns among Iran’s conservative establishment about Ahmadinejad getting too much credit for the release of Bauer and Fattal, the Iranian public appears to be widely apathetic toward the two Americans. Amid rising prices and deep-seated economic concerns, the Americans’ release has been overshadowed by the new allegations of financial corruption linked to allies of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet.

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“The two men’s release is a gesture to the Americans, so the president will gain something from that,” says a Tehran-based analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But in this negative economic climate, the public at large has found itself fascinated with the financial scandal.”

Attacks against Iran’s president and his close advisers escalated earlier this week with the arrest of 19 people charged with embezzling up to $3 billion through Iran’s semi-private Saderat Bank, according to local media reports.

“It seems the current government has dealt the most severe blow to the meaning of justice. Those who have supported this ‘current’ and paved the ground for this corruption must be taken to task,” said reformist member of parliament Mostafa Kavakebian, according to the Tabnak news website.

Already, Iran’s conservative news outlets are speculating that Mr. Mashaei, the president’s chief of staff, and his associates are affiliated with the accused.

“Certainly, the elements of this embezzlement are very familiar with the country’s banking system and they enjoy a strong relationship with powerful figures in the country as well,” the conservative Mellat-e-Ma newspaper said in an editorial today.

Escalation ahead of March electionsAnalysts in Tehran expect public sparring between Iran’s president and judiciary to escalate in the run-up to the country’s 2012 parliamentary elections, which will pave the way for Iran’s presidential elections in 2013.

Ali Yousefpour, publisher of the conservative Siyasat-e-Rooz daily newspaper, said some of the stolen funds were probably given to the ‘deviant current’ around Ahmadinejad to campaign for the parliamentary elections next March, according to Reuters. 

Such accusations, together with ongoing opposition from the courts that delayed the release of Bauer and Fattal, could bode ill for Ahmadinejad’s political future.

“The question is whether, after Ahmadinejad’s presidential term is over, there will be any room for him to influence things politically,” says the Tehran-based analyst. “Any bad PR could compel supportive members of parliament to pull away from Ahmadinejad and not want to be affiliated with him too closely. Right now, the big prize is indeed the parliamentary election.”