Why Did Iran Charge U.S. Backpackers With Espionage?

Three Americans have been convicted for a crime punishable by death. What does Iran want?

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In a move that could complicate the Obama administration's efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, three Americans detained in that country were charged with espionage. The offense is punishable by death under the country's sharia law. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected the move saying there was no evidence to back the charges. Commentators in the U.S. have scrambled to answer the salient question--what does Iran want?

  • Praise, writes Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic: "This was inevitable, wasn't it? Iran is going to charge those three doofus American hitchhikers with espionage. Then we'll negotiate their release and Bill Clinton will bring them home and we'll have to call the Iranian government reasonable and compassionate."
  • An End to Nuclear Talks, writes Jason Zengerle at The New Republic: "I think Iran has given Obama its answer." He cites a recent report by The New York Times' David Sanger detailing concerted efforts the Obama administration has made to salvage a nuclear deal only to be shot down repeatedly by Iran's leadership. "And now comes the news that Iran is charging those three American hikers with espionage. At this point, it's almost impossible to see how Obama meets his self-imposed end-of-the-year deadline for diplomatic progress with Iran."
  • Rapprochement, suggests Scott Peterson in The Christian Science Monitor, who notes that previously, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intervened for the release of Roxana Saberi after she was given a stern sentencing. This gives him the chance to step in and appear magnanimous: "The arrest of the hikers could also facilitate things. If Ahmadinejad intervenes with a presidential decree, as he did with [Saberi], at least he can pose as somebody who is in favor of softening tensions."
  • Proof the 'Great Satan Exists,' writes Joe Klein at Time, who believes Iran wants to goad the U.S. into acting more aggressively toward it: "No doubt, assorted neoconservatives in the U.S. will want to use this as an excuse to whack the Khamenei-Whomever government...which will give the regime exactly what it wants and needs: proof that the Great Satan exists...Want to make the Iranian leaders uncomfortable? Praise them. Or, at least, don't play into their need for a satanic enemy."
  • Leverage, says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice: "The three are essentially now international pawns: of Iran lashing out at the United States, at Iranian officials for trying to use them for domestic consumption to raise the spectre of U.S. spies in Iran, or as bargaining chips to prod Washington in negotiations over issues between the two countries."
  • Its Captured Diplomats, suggests a report by Reuters: "Ahmadinejad suggested in an interview with the American television network NBC in September that the Americans' release might be linked to the release of Iranian diplomats he said were being held by U.S. troops in Iraq."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.