Freed U.S. Hiker Reunites With Mother
Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, participates in a discussion with Swiss apprentices on Thursday June 14, 2012 on the train between Geneva and Bern on her first trip to Europe since 1988 to formally accept the Nobel Peace Prize that thrust her into the global limelight two decades ago. (AP Photo / Sebastien Bozon, Pool) / Sebastien Bozon
In just a few dizzying hours, American Sarah Shourd exchanged a cell in Tehran's Evin Prison for a private jet crossing the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, after an apparent diplomatic deal to cover a $500,000 bail and secure a release that seemed in jeopardy from the start.
(Scroll down to watch Sarah Shourd's interview with Iranian TV)
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In brief remarks to Iran's English-language state television station, Shourd, wearing a maroon headscarf and a tan coat, said she was "grateful" and "very humbled by this moment." Iran's Press TV also broadcast images of her boarding a jet and waving from the window of the aircraft before it took off.
Shourd, her fiance Shane Bauer and her friend Josh Fattal were last seen together in May, when they were allowed a short visit with their mothers who had traveled to Iran from the United States. During that visit Shourd announced she would marry Bauer, who while in jail had made an engagement ring with threads from his shirt, CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Palmer reports.
Alex Fattal, the brother of Josh Fattal, told "CBS Evening News" Anchor Katie Couric that all of the hikers' families were "overjoyed to see her out."
"She's had a long and difficult detention - 14 months solitary confinement - so it's wonderful she is free," Alex Fattal told Couric. "Of course we wish she was out with Josh and Shane."
Fattal told Couric that the families have not yet heard from Shourd about his brother and Bauer.
"We're worried about their psychological condition," Fattal told Couric. "So long not knowing about their case is very difficult, the isolation they've experienced, so we're worried about them. We continue to worry about their emotional well-being, and we really don't have any information."
(Scroll down to watch Alex Fattal's interview with Katie Couric)
Shourd arrived in Oman on a private government jet after a flight of about two hours. She was greeted with an embrace from her mother and then, looking relaxed and smiling, they strolled arm-in-arm on their way out.
"I want to really offer my thanks to everyone in the world to all of the governments to all of the people that have been involved," Shourd said. "I particularly want to address President Ahmadinejad and all of the Iranian officials and religious leaders and thank them for this humanitarian gesture. I'm grateful and I'm very humbled by this moment."
Shourd was met by her mother and U.S. diplomats at a royal airfield in the capital of Oman, which U.S. officials say played a critical role in organizing the bail payment and assuring it did not violate American economic sanctions on Iran.
Shourd stepped off the private Omani jet and into the arms of her mother in their first embrace since a brief visit in May overseen by Iranian authorities - and her first day of freedom in more than 13 months. Shourd smiled broadly as they strolled arm-in-arm through the heat of the late summer night along the Gulf of Oman.
"I'm grateful and I'm very humbled by this moment," she said before boarding the plane in Tehran for the two-hour flight to Oman.
The whirlwind departure of the 32-year-old Shourd brought little change for two other Americans - Bauer and Fattal - who remained behind bars while authorities moved toward possible trials on spy charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted.
"My first priority is to help my fiance Shane Bauer and my friend Josh Fattal to gain their freedom because they don't deserve to be in prison any longer," Shourd said.
Shortly after Iranian state media announced Shourd's release, the country's hardline judiciary said the "pretrial detention" of Bauer and Fattal had been extended for two more months.
"The judge issued the release order and Ms. Shourd was simply set free and she can leave Iran if she wants to," Dowlatabadi told state-run English-language Press TV. He said the cases of the two American men, both 28, will be sent to the revolutionary court and "there is no talk of releasing those two right now."
The three were detained along the Iraq border in July 2009. Their families say they were innocent hikers in the scenic mountains of Iraq's Kurdish region and if they did stray across the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.
"All of our families are relieved and overjoyed that Sarah has at last been released, but we're also heartbroken that Shane and Josh are still being denied their freedom for no just cause ... They deserve to come home, too," said a statement by the three families.
Iran, however, has shown no hints of clemency for the two 28-year-old men. Indictments on espionage-related charges have been filed and Tehran's chief prosecutor has suggested the cases could soon move into the courts, with Shourd tried in absentia.
Any other scenario could bring more unwanted attention to the growing rivalries inside Iran's Islamic leadership.
Even the gesture to release Shourd on health grounds - first raised as an act of Islamic benevolence last week by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - turned into a spectacle of high-level political bullying and sniping over who controlled her fate and the overall wisdom of letting her go.
The open bickering seemed to harden the divisions that have been developing since the brush with chaos after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last year.
On one side are Ahmadinejad and his allies, led by the vast military and economic network of the Revolutionary Guard - what some analysts have called the "militarization" of the Islamic state. The other pole reflects the old guard of Iran's once-unchallenged authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the traditional pillars of the theocracy such as the judiciary.
In Shourd's case, the judges came out on top. They humbled Ahmadinejad and set the ground rules for her release with a staggeringly high bail.
But in the wider sense, the feuds display the fraying consensus among Iran's conservative leadership - with Ahmadinejad's critics increasingly outspoken in their claims he is trying to expand his reach and redraw Iran's political map.
(At left, watch Sarah Shourd's interview with Iranian TV)
Such rifts could eventually make it harder for Iran to speak in one voice on key issues, such as its nuclear program and any future overtures to end 30 years of diplomatic estrangement with the United States.
"Iran's leadership managed to put down the opposition after Ahmadinejad's election, and now they are fighting among themselves," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of Iranian affairs at Syracuse University.
Ahmadinejad may have felt the sting from the judiciary over the handling of Shourd's release. But he came away with the outcome he sought: a goodwill gesture less than a week before he is scheduled to arrive in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly.
Ahmadinejad has said Shourd was being released on compassionate grounds. Her mother says she has serious medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
Shourd's release, some analysts say, could be used by Iran as a way to deflect the international outcry over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery and the continued crackdown on opposition groups - which led two Iranian ambassadors in Europe to quit this week and seek asylum.
"Ahmadinejad is possibly trying to make the environment less hostile in New York," said Rasool Nafisi, a researcher on Iranian affairs at Strayer University in Virginia.
Even in the last minutes, Ahmadinejad tried to put his stamp on the release. His adviser on women's affairs, Maruyam Mojtahedzadeh, was on hand to greet Shourd at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.
Upon arrival in Oman, Shourd also thanked the sultan for his help and said she would turn her efforts to trying to win the release of her companions. Her immediate travel plans were unclear. A U.S. official said she would be in Oman for at least a day.
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Shourd, who grew up in Los Angeles, Bauer, who grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, who grew up in Elkins Park, Pa., were detained on July 31, 2009, and accused of illegally crossing into Iran and spying in a case that has deepened tensions with Washington.
Up until the moment Shourd was led outside the gray walls of Evin Prison, it was unclear whether the opening for her release could just as suddenly close.
A day earlier, a commentary by a news agency linked to the Revolutionary Guard called the bail an insult to Iran's security and intelligence forces. Shourd's family then said they couldn't afford the amount and the State Department noted it would not offer financial help.
Then came the unexpected news from Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, that bail had been paid to Iran's Bank Melli in the Omani capital Muscat. Shourd's family has not disclosed the source of the funds - opening speculation that a diplomatic pact was cut with Oman.
A U.S. official said neither the U.S. government nor the families of the hikers put up the money, but could not say who else might have paid it.
All signs pointed to Oman, both a close Western and Iranian ally that wraps around the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula.
(At left, Alex Fattal's interview with Katie Couric)
Oman is seen as an important diplomatic bridge with Tehran because the two nations share close bonds as guardians of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the seaway for an estimated 40 percent of the world's oil.
Another U.S. official said Omani negotiators had played a critical, behind-the-scenes role, working with Iran's judiciary and Swiss diplomats who handle U.S. affairs in Iran. Oman was key in coordinating the bail payment, the official said - suggesting some kind of channel to avoid violating American sanctions on Iran.
Both U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
U.S. sanctions put blanket restrictions on transactions with Iran's main state bank, Bank Melli, which has been the channel for past bail payments to Iranian courts by foreign detainees. Washington accuses the bank of helping fund Iran's ballistic missile development and its nuclear program, which the U.S. says could eventually lead to atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks peaceful nuclear reactors for energy.
In a statement, Oman's government said it "welcomes" Shourd's release and hoped "other positive steps will follow in the course of the Iranian-American relations."
President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton both thanked Oman for its assistance.
Oman "in recent days and weeks became a key interlocutor to help us work this case with the Iranian government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And we are very grateful to the role that Oman has played."
He could not say if any money had changed hands in winning Shourd's release, but noted that "arrangements were made that satisfied Iranian requirements under their judicial system."
At the same time, Crowley said the U.S. government had no information to suggest any U.S. or international sanctions on Iran had been violated.
"I am very pleased that Sarah Shourd has been released by the Iranian government, and will soon be united with her family," Obama said in a statement.
Shourd's mother, Nora, said she has hoped and prayed for this moment for 410 days.
"Sarah has had a long and difficult detainment and I am going to make sure that she now gets the care and attention she needs and the time and space to recover," she said. "I can only imagine how bittersweet her freedom must be for her, leaving Shane and Josh behind."
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