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One year later, future of American hikers in Iran remains unclear

One year ago this week, three Americans trekking in northern Iraq near the Iranian border were arrested and locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, accused of entering Iran illegally.

One year ago this week, three Americans trekking in northern Iraq near the Iranian border were arrested and locked up in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, accused of entering Iran illegally.

Despite extensive public attention, the efforts and support of high-level U.S. officials and other prominent figures, and a visit to Tehran by the trio's mothers, the friends widely known as "the American hikers" remain in limbo - even as other foreigners detained in Iran in recent years have generally been freed within weeks or months.

The fact that the hikers were arrested just six weeks after violent antigovernment street protests erupted in Tehran, and against the backdrop of U.S.-led pressure to curtail Iran's nuclear fuel-enrichment program, made them particularly vulnerable as political pawns, analysts say.

"The timing could not have been worse. They entered Iran at a very, very bad time" in terms of suspicions about outsiders, said Hooshang Amirahmadi, the Iranian-born director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. "The streets were in the hands of the youth, and suddenly these American kids appear on the border."

The State Department and the hikers' families say that Joshua Fattal, 28, a Cheltenham High School graduate; Shane Bauer, 28, of Minnesota; and Sarah Shourd, 31, of California, were vacationing in a mountainous resort area of northern Iraq and strayed across the unmarked frontier or were grabbed in disputed territory July 31.

Iranian prosecutors contend the trio entered the Islamic Republic to stir up resistance to its regime and to commit espionage - though to this day they have not been formally charged with any crime.

"The evidence on the public record is very compelling, if not irrefutable, that these young people were hiking and had no ill will or intentions," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who on a recent trip to the Middle East asked Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Mohammad al-Sabah to try to intervene.

"The same regime that has defied the world on its nuclear program has been unwilling to allow these individuals to have any kind of a hearing or process to make an expedited determination of their status," Casey said.

That, Amirahmadi said, is because "this is not a legal case, this is not a criminal case, this is a purely political case."

Haleh Esfandiari, a prominent U.S. academic researcher who was detained for four months under house arrest in Iran and then spent 105 days in solitary confinement at Evin Prison in 2007, said her case and those of journalists Roxana Saberi and Maziar Bahari - both arrested for violating state security and released within a few months - differed from that of the hikers because she and Saberi are Iranian American, and Bahari is Iranian Canadian.

"The Iranian government doesn't acknowledge dual nationality," said Esfandiari, 70, director of the Middle East program for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "As far as the authorities were concerned, they were dealing with us as Iranians. In the case of the hikers, they have three American citizens in their custody."

Given Iran's 30-year estrangement from the United States, and worsening relations of late because of the nuclear issue, holding the three Americans indefinitely seemed like a counterpressure bonanza.

"Keeping the hikers serves several purposes for Tehran," said Paul Brannan, a senior analyst with the Institute for Science and International Security, a nuclear-nonproliferation think tank in Washington. "Iran can compare them to the [dozen or so] Iranians who have been arrested overseas, sometimes at the request of the United States," for skirting sanctions against trade with Iran.

And, Brannan said, "it serves as a PR campaign: You arrest our citizens, we arrest your citizens - somehow trying to establish the notion that the two are equal."

But showing compassion by releasing them, or fining and sentencing them to time served, could also improve Iran's public image in the West, he said.

Like it or not, said Amirahmadi, the hikers are bargaining chips.

"You have some of the people that we consider our friends. And we have people that you consider your people, so let's just make a deal," he said of the Iranians' possible thinking.

"I hate to see that become the norm in international diplomacy. On the other hand, these kids are innocent, or if they are not innocent, their crimes are so negligible that the punishment is disproportionate."

Some observers saw an unspoken deal in the May release of French researcher Clotilde Reiss, who had been held in Iran for 10 months on charges of distributing photographs of the street demonstrations. She was freed just a few days after France defied the Obama administration by refusing to extradite to the United States an alleged Iranian arms smuggler, Majid Kakvand.

"Remember, the Iranian government is a deal-maker," Amirahmadi said. "The French case shows you that."

Though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has publicly ruled out a prisoner exchange for the hikers, some say they believe that the recent return to Tehran of Iranian nuclear physicist Shahram Amiri could help advance their cause. Amiri said he was kidnapped and held prisoner in the United States; U.S. officials say he was a defector and CIA informant, and apparently facilitated his departure.

"He has been in the United States of his own free will and is free to go," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at a July 13 briefing, and he contrasted Amiri's freedom of movement to the hikers' continued captivity.

"We continue to be mindful . . . that we have the three hikers in custody without charge in Iran," he added. "Obviously, they are there against their own free will."

The hikers' families don't know what it will take to win their freedom, but they remain resolute.

"What they are doing to my brother and his friends is amoral and inhumane," said Alex Fattal, Josh's older brother, "and they shouldn't be playing political games with innocents."

To mark Saturday's anniversary, the families and supporters of the hikers will hold rallies in 30 cities around the world, starting Friday in New York outside Iran's mission to the United Nations. Some demonstrators will dress in hiking gear; speakers will include the hikers' mothers and Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

In Philadelphia, members of the Fattal family and supporters will gather Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. near the Liberty Bell at Sixth and Chestnut Streets.