MUSCAT, Oman (AP) — An international effort to free two Americans jailed in Tehran as spies is "waiting for the next Iranian move" on whether its hard-line judiciary will clear the way for payment of $1 million in exchange for their release, Iraq's foreign minister said Friday.
Iraq and Oman have dispatch high-level envoys to Tehran as part of complicated judicial and diplomatic dealings over the proposed bail arrangement for Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who have been held by Iran for more than two years. Swiss officials also are involved as representatives of U.S. interests in Iran, which has no diplomatic ties with America.
The men, both 29, were sentenced last month to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. They have denied the charges and appealed the verdicts — which opened the way for the possible deal for $500,000 bail each.
The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq when they were detained in July 2009 along with their friend Sarah Shourd. She was released last September with mediation by Oman after $500,000 was paid. Shourd's case remains open.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that his country's leaders have urged Iran to release the Americans on humanitarian grounds.
"Recent statements by the Iranian president give us reason to be optimistic," Zebari said in a telephone interview. "Everybody is now waiting for the next Iranian move to put an end to this issue."
The first word of the bail offer came earlier this week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said the Americans could be freed in a matter of days. But Iran's powerful judiciary then responded that the bail provisions were still under review.
The mixed signals could reflect the bitter internal political feuds inside Iran between Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts. Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran's Islamic establishment.
At least two close advisers to Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, have been in Tehran since Wednesday when Oman dispatched a plane to take the Americans out of Iran, an Omani official told the AP on condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing negotiations.
Oman has close ties with both Tehran and Washington and plays a strategic role in the region by sharing control with Iran of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, which is the route for 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday the U.S. continues to hope the Americans will be released, adding that Washington has received word through a number of sources that the hikers will be returned to their families.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, California. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.
Bauer proposed marriage to Shroud while in prison.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Saeed El-Nahdy in Muscat contributed to this report.