The release of Sarah Shourd, one of three US citizens picked up by Iranian authorities in July 2009 while hiking near the Iraq-Iran border, has been delayed.
An Iranian Labor News Agency story quotes Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Doulatabadi, in what appears to have been a sudden, late-night intervention (after 11 p.m. Tehran time), "Because the legal procedure on her case is not finished, her release is canceled."
The release was supposed to take place at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Hafeziyeh of Saad Abad, a Presidential palace which has been the site of high-profile appearances of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and visiting leaders.
Our snap analysis?
The Foreign Ministry and, more importantly, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, pushed too hard and too fast on the release of Sarah Shourd. Not necessarily in the release itself --- that could be justified as a humanitarian gesture, given the end of Ramadan and Shourd's gender and poor health --- but in its presentation.
Initially the freeing of Shourd was to take place in a hotel in north Tehran, probably as a low-key handover to Swiss officials, who represent US diplomatic interests in Iran. Then, however, the plans changed: the ceremony was now going to take place in the Presidential palace at Saad Abad, the site of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's public appearances with foreign leaders.-
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry --- which had recently been at odds with the President but which wanted the release of at least one US detainee as a diplomatic move --- put out the message that Ahmadinejad deserved the credit for Shourd's release.
So now a low-key freeing of the detainee had become a high-profile showpiece for the President. A showpiece on 11 September, with all that date means, and thus a clear signal of accommodation with the US. A showpiece which in itself was the warm-up act for Ahmadinejad's trip to New York and the United Nations later this month. (Remember, the wider context is Ahmadinejad's desire to return to uranium enrichment talks with Washington via the 5+1 powers.)
That was too much for both Larijanis, Speaker of Parliament Ali and head of judiciary Sadegh. The two, already manoeuvring vis-a-vis the President over authority in a dispute which had been escalating in recent weeks, did not want Ahmadinejad to take the glory and thus the political legitimacy of spearheading Shourd's release. (A bit of recent history: in 2007, 15 British sailors were held for weeks in Tehran after supposedly straying into Iranian waters. Although Ali Larijani was central to the discussions that brought their release, it was Ahmadinejad who presided over a choreographed ceremony and gift-giving to the sailors as they were freed.)
And there was an added bit of distaste for Ahmadinejad's critics. Word was getting out that the "high officials" who were to appear at this suddenly-arranged very public ceremony might included the President's controversial and widely-disliked Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai.
So, at the last minute, on the Iranian weekend and after most of the media had gone to sleep, Sadegh Larijani's judiciary moved. The Foreign Ministry and the Presidency had no right intervening in a judicial matter. Shourd's release would have to be considered by the proper authorities, i.e., Iran's courts.
At least for this moment, that sudden move has prevailed.
Meanwhile, where is the Supreme Leader, the supposed authority in Iran's system? The apparent answer tonight is that he had been off to the side of all this drama. With Ahmadinejad's speed in raising the profile of Shourd's release and with the judiciary's sudden counter-attack, there has been no space for Ayatollah Khamenei to intervene. And, if he were to do so right now, he risks putting himself in the centre of a rather nasty fight between the heads of his three branches of Government. So the Supreme Leader's best move may be just to sit back and hope his politicians can find some face-saving accommodation.