Four days ago, bombastic Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that the two American hikers accused of espionage and sentenced to eight years in (what we can only assume are incredibly horrific) Iranian prisons would be freed. On $500,000 bail apiece, that is. Regardless, it was seen as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to bolster his diplomatic credentials on the eve of a multi-country tour, which will include a stop at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Monday. But the very next day, the country's judiciary, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced it wasn't in the president's power to release the two Americans. Perhaps the most succinct primer on the internal politicking going on in Iran came from St. Andrew's University professor of Iranian history Ali Ansari, who spoke with NPR.
The infighting is really coming to a head. 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.
Reports out of Tehran today, however, point to yet another swing in the fortunes of Shane Bauer and Josh Fatall, the two Americans, with the country's foreign minister saying that after all the courts are willing to commute their sentences. At the same time, their defense lawyer is already at work on bail arrangements while Oman's government has sent a plane to ferry the two out of Iran once released. While unclear whether this latest development means that Ahmadinejad won the tussle or that Khamenei co-opted the clemency narrative, it is equally unclear which of the two hates the West less. Yet of the two, Ahmadinejad, threatened by Khamenei's maneuvering — what with him being the Supreme Leader and all — may soon find a bit of Western rapprochement in his interest, since getting rid of some of the sanctions may be just the sort of economic victory he needs to maintain the populist support he's so far enjoyed and counter any clerical opposition. Or maybe Iran's homegrown protest movement, inspired by the successes of the Arab Spring, may decide to inaugurate a Persian Autumn and introduce a third option.