Iranian state television reported soon after that the three were detained by Iranian authorities upon crossing the border into Iran, though an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said yesterday he could not confirm whether the Americans had been detained.
Now the fourth member of the hiking party, Shon Meckfessel, has released a statement explaining how the Americans ended up in or near the Iranian border. Meckfessel, it appears, would have been with the missing group but came down with a cold and decided to stay behind.
According to the statement, links to which Meckfessel emailed to CBS News, the three hikers had no idea they were nearing Iranian territory. (Pictured above: Dukan Resort near Sulaimaniyah, where the three hikers were last seen.)
"In late July the four of us decided to travel from Damascus, Syria to Iraqi Kurdistan for a short vacation," Meckfessel writes. "Sarah [Shourd, one of the missing Americans] had to return to work in a week. While going there might seem strange to Americans, the Kurdish territory is actually very beautiful and quite safe. Since the Kurds gained autonomy in 1992, no American has ever been harmed there. The city of Sulaimania is increasingly popular with tourists, and a friend of ours told us it was the most beautiful area he'd ever seen."
(A note here: As you'll see on this page, the U.S. State Department "continues to warn U.S. citizens of the dangers inherent in travel to Iraq and recommends against all but essential travel in country given the fluid security situation.")
Meckfessel writes that the tourists asked numerous people where they should go to experience the area's mountainous terrain, and were told to visit a place called Ahmed Awa.
"Not one of these people mentioned that Ahmed Awa was anywhere near the Iranian border," he writes. "In fact, on the wall of our hotel there were three photos of tourists standing near the Ahmed Awa waterfall."
There are no clear markings delineating the Iran/Iraq border at Ahmed Awa.
Ahmed Awa, Meckfessel writes, was not on the tourists' map, and Meckfessel thought it was in a different area than it turned out to be. The group – minus Meckfessel, who stayed behind to recuperate form a cold – set out for the area, camped overnight, and woke up the next day to continue hiking.
Meckfessel writes that he spoke that morning to one of the hikers, Shane Bauer, who "made absolutely no mention of any risk whatsoever."
"I am absolutely certain that they had no knowledge of their proximity to the Iranian border or they would have never continued in that direction," he writes. "Shane told me they were planning to turn around soon. He thought we could meet up near the waterfall."
A short time later, Meckfessel writes, he sent Bauer two text messages, but got no response. Then he received a call from Bauer "during which he told me that they were being taken into custody and that I should call the embassy."
"I hope that people understand my friends' presence in the area for what it was: a simple and very regrettable mistake," Meckfessel writes.
The U.S. has no official diplomatic relationship with Iran. Swiss officials have stepped in to represent American diplomatic interests and see if they can find out where the Americans are being held.