American hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison by Iran today after being convicted of spying. The pair claimed to be hiking in far northeastern Iraq more than two years ago along with a female companion, Sarah Shourd, who was later allowed out 'on bail' (effectively a ransom payment because nobody expects her to return for trial) after her health began to deteriorate and both the U.S. and Iran were concerned that if she died in prison it could lead to questions that neither would want to answer.
So the question remains, Are they spies?
I don't consider official pronouncements from either government to mean anything. The Iranians of course will say that (just as other governments hostile to the U.S. will) about any American who shows up in their territory. At the same time, if they were spies would you expect our government to acknowlege this? Clearly not. It was a major embarrassment to the U.S. earlier this year when they had to acknowlege that Raymond Davis, an American contractor who shot two Pakistani men who were allegedly trying to rob him was in fact an American agent. So because the Iranian government will automatically accuse and the American government will automatically deny, we can throw both of those out in the trash.
So what we are left with is purely speculative.
Reasons to think they could be spies:
1. The location and time where they were apprehended. I know dozens of serious hikers and I've never met any who were juked to go to Iraq. I'm sure there is some beautiful country there but in particular, trails that lead long the border with Iran seem a very curious place for American hikers to head to unless they have another reason for being there; Further, keep in mind that Iraq is still a war zone (and two years ago was that much more of one.) Granted, Kurdistan is the least restive part of Iraq but it's still true that Iraq is a dangerous place for Americans who just want to go for a visit. Most hikers try to avoid places where they may end up in political or local trouble, not seek them out.
2. The fact that high level administration officials have been involved in trying to get them out of Iran. If they were just ordinary citizens they'd probably send Bill Richardson or Bill Clinton or someone else with little power to actually promise anything to get them out.
3. They were convicted. Granted I'm not sure I'd want to be put on trial in Iran, but at the same time it does have a judicial system in place so contrary to popular belief in the U.S. it's not a society absolutely ruled by the will of a mullah or of Ahmadinejad. Judges have ruled against the state before there.
Reasons to think they may not be spies:
1. An eight year prison sentence. Convicted foreign spies are typically given life sentences, and in some countries they can face execution. Consider convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who was arrested in 1985. He got a life sentence for being convicted of spying on the United States. The Israelis have tried unsuccessfully through for years that have spanned five Presidential administrations to get Pollard back. Keeping in mind that Israel is a nominal ally of the United States, the fact that Pollard is still in prison and will very likely die there would not bode well by comparison for an American spy convicted in Iran. So an eight year sentence may be largely for show, so they can growl and tell us how tough they are but not be stuck with these guys in prison for the next 50 or 60 years. Eight years does however guarantee that they won't be released until after the Obama administration (a clear poke at it since they were arrested very early on during the Obama administration.)
2. History. Remember that Iran held Americans hostage for 444 days back in 1979-1981 and in fact effectively held America captive for more than a year. Almost every news story was about the hostage crisis (in fact that's how "Nightline" got started) and for at least a decade thereafter the biggest bogeyman we had was Ayatollah Khomeini. There are some who even believe that Ahmadinejad personally was among the hostage takers (a charge he denies) but there may be a certain desire to see how much they can make America sit up and take notice.
3. Cultural issues. Most successful spies (depending on their mission) are citizens of the country which they are spying upon. Foreigners can attract suspicion and even more so in a society as xenophobic as Iran has become. And in fact, the U.S. would not need to send Americans to infiltrate Iran because given the long history between the two nations along with the fact that many Iranians are plainly disgusted with their regime, it's virtually certain that the U.S. has all the spies we need available in Iran right now. At the same time, there are things that sufficiently trained Americans operating along the border in theory COULD do, including making contact with local villagers to try and recruit more spies (in which case they would most likely in fact have gotten lost because remember we are talking about Kurdistan here, which is on both sides of the border; in this scenario they would be looking for Iranian Kurds who were temporarily in Iraq.) Another would be to set up electronic equipment along the border; I'm certainly no expert on that but I'd be amazed if they don't have electronic equipment that could spy very effectively at least a few miles into the country, and detect movement around and across the border-- for example weapons shipments allegdly being smuggled from Iran into and across Iraq to Syria and then to Hezbollah. However, even to do this work, I would think they'd have tried to recruit some local Kurds they could trust with it so as not to arouse suspicion.
Often spies do not, in fact, serve out their full sentences-- they are exchanged in spy swaps. Probably the most notorious spy swap in history occurred February 16, 1962 when Russia's former top spy in the U.S. Colonel Rudolf Abel was traded across a bridge for former U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down in 1960. It's possible that Iran, rather than wanting the payment of ransom or political concessions, may be planning to trade these hikers for Iranians in prison (whether for spying or for other crimes) elsewhere.
What we can say is that there is probably more to be known here than the cover story.