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Zakaria: No one thinks hikers are spies

  • Iran is using the case of the 3 U.S. hikers for leverage, Zakaria says
  • He says Iranian regime is divided, complicating U.S. diplomacy
  • Zakaria says U.S. is right to seek agreement on the nuclear issue
  • Washington is a bystander as forces in Iran contend for control, he says

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET

New York (CNN) -- Three American hikers detained by Iran are facing espionage charges, according to Iranian officials.

The three Americans have been held since July 31 on charges of illegally crossing the border from Iraqi Kurdistan into Iran. The families and friends of Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal say it was an innocent mistake and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed. "We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever," Clinton said this week.

The move against the hikers comes at a delicate moment in relations between Iran and the United States. Fareed Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" spoke to CNN Tuesday about Iran and U.S. policy.

CNN: Iran announced this week that the charge against the three American hikers is espionage. What's the significance of that development?

Fareed Zakaria: It strikes me as one more of a series of provocative decisions that the Iranians take purely for bargaining purposes. If you read Ahmadinejad's comments about it, it becomes absolutely clear that nobody thinks these people are spies.

This regime tends to take advantage of minor accidents like these to reap some political gain from it. It shows them to be insecure and there's a kind of immaturity about it.

In fact, it seems to me if you read between the lines of Ahmadinejad's comments, he seemed to accept that these people were not spies. He was saying that crossing a border is a serious offense in any country. He seemed to accept that the only illegality here was crossing a border.

CNN: It's been reported that Ahmadinejad said the U.S. must abandon support for Israel to move ahead on better relations with Iran.

Zakaria: This has been a consistent theme of Ahmadinejad's. We read it too much as an expression of some kind of ideology. What it really is is Ahmadinejad's effort to appropriate, to take over the core central issue of the Arab world -- the Palestinian issue -- and make it his own. Iran is trying to become the dominant power of the Middle East.

It makes it very difficult for Arab countries to be critical of Iran because, on the Arab street, Ahmadinejad is seen as the great upholder of the Palestinian cause. He is trying to keep the Arabs on the defensive by constantly reminding people that he is the great opponent of Israel in the region. It's a very clever political calculation.

CNN: How can the Obama administration negotiate with Iran when it seems their stance on the nuclear issue is constantly shifting?

Zakaria: For Obama, the great dilemma remains that they're trying to cut some kind of a deal with Iran, so it poses less of a threat to Israel and the region and yet you have the very real stirrings of political change in Iran. The first impulse makes you want to work with the regime, the second makes you want to isolate the regime.

So far what they're trying to do is probably the right thing, to signal to Iran the U.S. is still open to negotiation. Iran's nuclear capacity is a short-term problem, while Iran's political evolution is a long-term issue.

Remember that the Hungarian revolution took place in 1956, the Czech uprising in 1968 and the Polish liberation movement began in the early 1980s, but it was only in 1989 that these countries were liberated. It doesn't mean it will take that long in Iran, but it's not a short-term event.

Perhaps Obama could give more voice to the aspirations of the Iranian people. He's a little too hesitant for my taste on that front, but to get some kind of agreement on the nuclear issue is the right judgment call.

CNN: So what are the implications for U.S. policy?

Zakaria: Probably the most important problem is that the Iranian regime is now divided and diffuse. Any move by one person in the regime draws opposition from others. Ahmadinejad's effort to begin negotiating on the nuclear issue was immediately undercut by other elements of the regime. Ahmadinejad's opponents are going to use any excuse they can to cut him down.

In a very real sense, the problem with negotiating with Iran right now is a Teheran problem, not a Washington problem. Washington is a bystander.

In the short term, the regime will be able to consolidate. It's possible that Ahmadinejad might find himself sidelined if the Supreme Leader feels it's more advantageous to give weight to other players, but that doesn't change the basic structure of the regime. [Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali] Larijani's opposition to Ahmadinejad on the nuclear issue is really about Larijani wanting to deliver the nuclear agreement with the West himself. Washington will have to play a cautious watching and waiting role. The offers on the table by the West are good offers, but the ball is in Iran's court.

CNN: How serious a factor is the threat of a possible strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear sites?

Zakaria: You have to imagine it is a factor in the calculation of the Iranians. My own gut is that it's not as likely as many people seem to think. A military strike would only delay an Iranian nuclear program and not end it, and the consequence would be to embolden the regime and give it more support.

With oil at $75 a barrel, the Iranians would have plenty of money to rebuild the program very fast. I hope the Israelis understand it would be a very temporary fix with enormous political costs for them, the U.S. and the region.