American hiker Sarah Shourd, 32, poses for a photograph at Mehrabad airport, prior to leaving Tehran on Tuesday., AP
The hours Sarah Shourd spent between leaving Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, where she was in solitary confinement for more than a year, and crossing Iranian airspace must have been the most excruciating and longest hours of her life. I know that because I have been there. After spending 118 days in Evin in 2009, being charged with espionage every day and threatened with execution on a daily basis, all I wanted to do was to leave Iran and join my family in London.
I remember the first thing I did, after I sat down in that British Midlands plane from Tehran to Heathrow, was to order a whisky (at 8 in the morning!) to calm my nerves. I then put on the movie The Hangover on my screen and the route map on the screen of the empty seat next to me. Intoxicated, I laughed out loud when the characters in the movie stole Mike Tyson’s tiger and when one married a stripper in Las Vegas. I also nervously looked at the route map and couldn’t relax until we crossed Iranian airspace into Turkey. My laughs after that moment became louder and I knew that I was out of the hands of the Iranian government.
Or was I? Even after almost a year since my release, in October 2009, I still receive threatening phone calls from Iran. The callers tell me that I should be silent about what I saw and endured in prison. “Otherwise you will be brought back in a bag to Iran,” they say. I am not sure what threats Sarah Shourd received in the days leading to her release, but I am sure she has been threatened that if she talks negatively about the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards who arrested and held her since July 2009, she would jeopardize the release of her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and her friend Josh Fattal, who were arrested with her somewhere along the Iran-Iraq border.
While the threats against me may just be threats, Sarah has two friends in the hands of the Guards. That is why I am not going to call Sarah as a journalist and ask her questions about her experience. And I ask all my colleagues around the world to refrain from harassing her for information as well. I also know how annoying it can be when you want to have a peaceful moment with your family and you are bombarded by interview requests. Sarah is very ill and has precancerous symptoms. The last thing Sarah and her mother, Nora, who was reunited with her today in Oman, want is hacks calling them for exclusives. Let them have their private moments together, and they will tell you whatever they want to tell you when they feel like doing it.
I also ask my colleagues and friends not to bother Sarah and her family for information about the circumstances of her release: who paid the bail to release her and how she got out of the country. Remember, two of their loved ones are in prison, and anything they say can put them in danger. And please don’t make moral judgments about whether paying the bail was right or not. She was wrongfully arrested and kept in jail for more than a year. She needed to get out any way she could. No one has the right to make ethical judgments about what her family had to do to get her out of Iran.
Sarah and her two friends have been entangled in two atrocious fights: the standoff between Iran and the United States and the internal struggle between different factions of the Iranian government. The arrest of the three American hikers in the border area between Iran and Iraq was a way for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to prove that the Great Satan was actively trying to undermine the Islamic government. The Guards arrested hundreds of people after the disputed elections in June 2009, which maintained Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power, and charged them with acting on the orders of “the global arrogance,” a term used by Iran’s Supreme Leader to describe the United States and its allies.
During my interrogations, the main thing the Guards were accusing me of was that I had been an interlocutor between the U.S. and the Iranian opposition. Arresting three American “spies” became part of the Guards’ scenario against “America’s Satanic seditions.” By arresting the three Americans, the Guards wanted to prove that America not only has its local agents in Iran but also sends its own citizens to Iran to guide them. In fact, when they brought the American hikers to Evin, my interrogator told me, “We have arrested the heads of CIA operations in Iran.”
The suppression of the Green Movement and reformists by the Guards after Ahmadinejad’s reelection was supposed to consolidate the power of the hardliners in Iran. It worked for a short time, but soon the veneer of unity started to crack. Each center of power in Iran started to mark its turf and territory. Even though Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, invites different Iranian leaders to unity, his brutality in getting rid of his opponents has taught officials in Iran that there is no win-win situation: if someone wins, it basically means that you have been outmaneuvered. So they not only treat their opponents brutally, they also have no mercy when it comes to their allies.
So far, the Revolutionary Guards, who control the hikers’ lives, have been the clear winners of this internal struggle. They control much of Iran’s economy, they have more allies in the Parliament and Ahmadinejad’s government, and they definitely have more guns than all their rivals combined. Even though many members of Ahmadinejad’s cabinet, including the president himself, are former Guard members, many current leaders of the Guards don’t think the president's cohorts are ideological enough, and, despite Ahmadinejad’s bellicose rhetoric, they also think the president is too keen to talk to the Americans.
Enter the American hostages. According to an Iranian diplomat, who wanted to remain anonymous, Ahmadinejad is quite eager to release all three Americans on the eve of his trip to New York on Sept. 23 to take part in the United Nations' annual General Assembly. Ahmadinejad enjoys the limelight and would love to be praised for his munificence. The diplomat says Ahmadinejad’s government has been negotiating with the Guards to release the American hostages for months and finally managed to obtain the Guards’ consent to release one of them.
“But then the government made the mistake of announcing the release before the prosecutor’s office [which works closely with the Guards],” says the diplomat. So the next day, Tehran’s prosecutor said Sarah Shourd’s release was not possible because the judicial procedure had not been completed yet. It was only when the government retracted its comments and allowed the prosecutor to take the lead in the release that Sarah was released earlier today.
I am sure Sarah and her two friends will have many tales of their time in prison, stories that will shed some light into the dark mindset of the men who are running Iran now. I certainly was horrified by what I witnessed and lived to tell the tale. But I like to repeat my request to my colleagues around the world: please let Sarah have some time with her mother. She will tell us what she wants to tell us when she wants to tell us.