Today, two years after their arrest and imprisonment and one year after their friend Sarah Shourd was released on medical grounds, American hikers Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were released from prison in Iran and reunited with their families in Oman.
The three were charged with espionage and illegal entry after they apparently wandered into or close to Iran while hiking in a remote region near the border between Iran and Iraq in 2009. The trio, formerly of the University of California-Berkeley and supporters of progressive causes, insisted they were innocent but were held anyway. Their real crime appears to have been hiking while American.
Iran is the inheritor of a rich cultural tradition in the country formerly known as Persia and has a lot to offer international travelers - provided the safety and honor of those travelers could be guaranteed, which it often cannot. This is especially true of the usual suspects in Iranian political and religious discourse, Americans, Israelis and Britons.
Bauer and Fittal were the subjects of a sustained and passionate international campaign for their release, which came at the reported OK of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - one day before he was scheduled to address the United Nations. The release of the two men is said to be a humanitarian gesture. Some gesture. The repellant Ahmadinejad could have released them anytime in the past two years.
One has to hope and believe that - in the long term, at least - Iran will eventually be open again to travelers, including the young, idealistic backpackers who drive much of the people-to-people contact that animates world travel. Until then, we have humanitarian gestures like this one.