The families of two American hikers imprisoned in Iran received hopeful, and then wrenching news this week. Iran's president announced the two would be released, only to have the judiciary deny it the next day.
As President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to visit New York for the United Nations General Assembly, the political infighting among Iranian conservatives seems to be intensifying.
Ahmadinejad told NBC and The Washington Post that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be released within days as a "unilateral humanitarian gesture." But soon it seemed that the young Americans had been caught up in the political feuding between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The judiciary, seen as an ally of the supreme leader, announced that it wasn't in Ahmadinejad's power to release the hikers, and that a proposed bail of $500,000 each was "being studied."
Ali Ansari, professor of Iranian history at St. Andrew's University in Scotland, says that as always with Iran, the back and forth could just be theatrics — perhaps to bring more attention to the hikers when Ahmadinejad is in the U.S. next week. But on the other hand, he says, Khamenei doesn't want to see Ahmadinejad taking too much credit if and when the Americans are released.
"The infighting is really coming to a head, Ansari says. "There is the view that Ahmadinejad has done what he came to do, and Khamenei now wants him out of the way. But of course, the situation is a good deal more complicated than that, because Ahmadinejad, I don't think, is the sort of person that will go quietly. I think he rather enjoys being president."
Ali Vaez, head of the Iran project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, says for those following the political feud there are clues to watch out for before and during Ahmadinejad's upcoming trip. If the supreme leader's allies are absent from the departure ceremony for Ahmadinejad, he says that will be a sign that ill-feelings are on the rise.
Another key sign, Vaez believes, will be whether the president's chief of staff and family member, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is in the delegation. Mashaei has been at the center of the storm brewing between the supreme leader and the president.
"If Mashaei is part of the delegation, it shows that Ahmadinejad is not going to back down, and is going to at least try to bolster his position — I mean benefiting from his trip to New York to bolster his position inside the country," Vaez says.
Another indicator, Vaez says, will be how the state-controlled media in Tehran cover Ahmadinejad's speech to the U.N. In the past, he has been lionized for taking a hard line against the West and against Israel. But two recent presidential speeches inside Iran were ignored by the state media.
Analyst Ali Ansari points out that while the battle between Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is interesting; it's sobering to recall that neither man has the slightest interest in reviving Iran's reform movement, which was brutally crushed two years ago.
"Basically the political process in Iran has become so narrow that it simply involves two factions within the same hard-line faction, if I can put it that way. Everyone else has been excluded," Ansari adds.
In the meantime, in a possibly hopeful sign for the two imprisoned American hikers, the gulf state of Oman has reportedly sent a jet to Tehran. When a third hiker, Sarah Shourd, was released on bail last year, it was also arranged with the help of Oman.