It was horrifying when three Americans were arrested by Iranian authorities and charged with being spies, apparently because they had allegedly strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in the Kurdish region of Iraq. And it was a huge relief, yesterday, when the two men, despite having been sentenced to eight years in prison, were released (the woman in the group had been released earlier on humanitarian grounds because of her failing health).
The whole matter has political undertones, with Iran making its point about enforcing its borders—especially when Americans are involved—and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arranging for the Americans' release right before he was to give an address before the United Nations.
Now that the Americans are free and safe, it is no longer tacky to ask this question:
What on earth were they thinking?
What sensible person goes hiking near the Iranian border, given the very real threat of arrest or worse if they wander over to Iranian turf? We can argue that the rules Iran has imposed are terrible, but to flirt with danger by recreating so close to the border is just foolish. It is a risk for nothing other than risk's sake. Two of the group describe themselves as journalists, but experienced journalists do not take risks like that unless there is a strong reason to do so. It's worth wondering, too, if they actually were just hiking. They certainly were not spies, but one wonders if they thought it might be an adorable story to write about how they dipped their toes over into Iranian territory. And a story like that doesn't serve any purpose to the reader. It doesn't expose war crimes or provide an on-the-ground view of what is happening in a war zone. Journalists have taken risks to tell those sorts of stories, and the risks are more defensible. But clandestinely crossing the border for its own sake would produce a story that is nothing but self-aggrandizing.
And if it was just an accident? Again, how is this possible? What is the point of choosing a hiking trail so close to the Iranian border? It's beautiful country, to be sure. But is it worth getting this close to disaster?
As irrational and punitive as the Iranians were, one can understand their added suspicion when two of the three group members identify themselves as journalists (or journalist/activist/teacher, as one calls herself). It doesn't mean they shouldn't be allowed to go hiking when they're not working, but having such an occupation puts even an off-duty hiker at greater risk. It's reminiscent of a hilarious Doonesbury cartoon, when the shady character "Duke," arrested by Iranian officials after attempting to parachute into Iran, says he's a tourist. "A tourist? With over $200,000 in cash?" the Iranian soldier asks him. "So I'm not Karl Malden. Sue me," Duke says, referring to the actor who promoted travelers checks.
The Americans released in Iran recently were surely not spies, and they didn't deserve to be imprisoned for their imprudent behavior. A lot of people in the Obama administration and in human rights organizations worked very hard for their release, and we should all admire that work and be grateful that the hikers are out. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't have been more careful.