THE VILLAGE OF AHMED AWA—a single street of ramshackle shops and restaurants—sits inside a mountain gorge just above the fertile plains of Iraqi Kurdistan, about ten miles west of the Iranian border. Beyond the village, a dirt parking lot marks the start of the trail to the Ahmed Awa waterfall, one of Iraq's most popular nature spots. The morning that I visited, in January, was clear and warm, but it was still unmistakably winter. The wild pomegranate, walnut, and fig trees that cover the slopes along the river leading to the cataract were bare, and I could see the torrent rushing by through a skein of skeletal branches. A cold rain had fallen during the night, and as I set off on my hike, joined by a Kurdish interpreter and the driver of our taxi, I had to keep to the edge of the trail, close to the drop-off, to avoid sinking into pools of mud.
As we hiked into the Zagros Mountains, which rise to nearly 12,000 feet along the border between Iraq and Iran, the driver grew nervous. "We're going to have lunch in Tehran," he said with a tense laugh. He had reason for his gallows humor: Six months earlier, three Americans—Shane Bauer, 27; his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, 31; and Josh Fattal, 27, Bauer's former housemate from the University of California at Berkeley—had walked along this same trail, with disastrous results. The hikers had—accidentally, it seems—strayed across the unmarked border into Iran, been seized by border guards, accused of being U.S. spies, and transported to the notorious Evin Prison, in Tehran, where they remained as this story went to press, in March. Bauer, Shourd, and Fattal are experienced globetrotters who've traveled to such hot spots as Yemen, Kosovo, and Lebanon; two of the three speak Arabic. Yet somehow—through lack of preparation, cultural misunderstanding, ignorance, or a combination of all three—these sophisticated nomads had wandered into one of the worst places on earth to be an American. Now I was retracing their footsteps, trying to understand how they'd made such a catastrophic error.
The path was deserted; when the American hikers were here, at the height of summer, it would have been crowded with families of Iraqi Kurds. The trees along the river would have been leafy and bountiful with fruit, and wildflowers would have speckled the now monochromatic pale green slopes. Ahead of us, a sign in Kurdish script identified the settlement of Zorm, a cluster of stone-and-mud huts perched on an outcropping. We slid down a muddy slope to talk to a farmer drying pomegranate rinds on the roof of his house. He remembered seeing the Americans when they stopped for tea before continuing to the waterfall. Two mornings later, he said, police and intelligence officers swarmed the village, informing locals that "the Americans have been arrested in Iran." The farmer suspected that their transgression had been deliberate, though there are no signs to announce the border. "Nobody has ever made that mistake before," he said. "Who knows? Maybe it was their secret task to go."
The trail became steeper, and the gorge narrowed. The sun was shining in a cloudless sky, burning off the mist that had shrouded the jagged, snow-dappled peaks ahead of us, in Iran. Fifteen minutes later, we reached a thundering 60-foot cascade that turned the turbines in an adjacent hydroelectric power station. There we met another local, a former peshmerga—a Kurdish freedom fighter—who'd battled the Iraqi army in these mountains in the eighties and now owned walnut orchards here. Over the water's roar, he told us that the border was a two-hour walk east into the mountains. Almost all hikers come to look at the waterfall and then turn back, he said. But somehow the Americans had kept walking. From what he'd learned, they'd slept outside and crossed the border in the early morning, when the trail was empty.
"Nobody could warn them," he said.
THE THREE HIKERS could hardly have picked a worse time to fall into Iranian hands. Hostility between the United States and the Islamist regime has reached a level not seen since the 1979 hostage crisis, when a gang of students and militants seized 66 Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held the majority of them for 444 days. Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denials and anti-Israel diatribes, the surging power of Iran's anti-Western Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the regime's suppression of the country's pro-democracy movement have driven rhetoric to new heights of acrimony.
Several U.S. citizens have been seized or allegedly seized by Iran's government in the past three years. These include Roxana Saberi, a former Miss North Dakota and Iranian-American journalist for National Public Radio, who was jailed for four months in 2009 on spying charges; Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and private detective who disappeared in March 2007 while apparently investigating a cigarette-smuggling case for an unnamed client in the Persian Gulf; and Ali Shakeri, an Iranian-born mortgage banker and peace activist from California, who spent 140 days in Evin after he was arrested in 2007 while visiting his ailing mother in Tehran. According to Alireza Nader, an Iran specialist for the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank, these arrests have become standard procedure, a situation that's not likely to change. "It has been [the government's] modus operandi since the 1979 revolution," Nader says.
When a civilian is jailed in Iran, the U.S. government is dealt a hopeless hand. The State Department has had no diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979 and must rely on the Swiss Embassy's Foreign Interests Section to help negotiate any release. In typical fashion, State's diplomats have been extremely cautious about what they will say regarding the three jailed hikers. Philip Frayne, the U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad, will only confirm that they have been reaching out to regional allies like Syria and Turkey. "We've asked everyone who has relations with the Iranians to put in a request with the Iranian government to release the three," he says. One top official in the Kurdish regional government, former freedom fighter Sadi Ahmed Pire, maintains that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, whose warm relations with Iran date back to the eighties, has appealed personally to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to free the Americans on humanitarian grounds. "The president [is making the case] that it's a matter of fairness to make their stay in prison very short," he says.