Iran on Tuesday offered the first official indication that Oman is playing a role in trying to secure the release of two American men imprisoned for more than a year.
The remarks by foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast come after a newspaper reported that an Omani delegation was expected to visit Iran and hoped to take the detainees home with it.
When asked about the report, Mehmanparast said only that "delegations from various countries travel to Iran" and vice versa.
He noted that such visits were generally signs of friendly relations between neighbors.
Oman helped secure the Sept. 14 release of American Sarah Shourd, who was arrested along with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal near the Iran-Iraq border.
That raised hopes the Gulf sultanate - an ally of both the United States and Tehran - could help secure the two men's freedom as well.
Mehmanparast said the two men's cases were still under investigation by Iran's hard-line judiciary.
The hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami, which is not state-run but is close to the ruling establishment, reported the possible Omani visit, which was to occur as early as Sunday. It said that if the Americans are released, they will be able to leave with the delegation for the Omani capital Muscat.
Oman's foreign affairs ministry referred questions to the sultanate's ministry of information. An official there, who wasn't authorized to speak publicly, said the ministry had received no details of any visit and was unable to confirm whether Oman was involved in negotiations to free the Americans.
Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian lawyer for the Americans, told The Associated Press he was not aware of the Omani visit.
Shourd's release, which the Iranians said was on compassionate grounds because of illness, was a bittersweet milestone in a saga that has become one of many irritants in fraught U.S.-Iranian relations. She left behind her fiance Bauer and their friend Fattal - both 28 - to possibly face trial on espionage charges.
Shourd, 32, was released after officials in Oman mediated a $500,000 bail that satisfied Iranian authorities and apparently did not violate U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran. The source of the bail payment has not been disclosed.
Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with Shourd while in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly. He told the AP that he hopes Bauer and Fattal would be able to provide evidence "they had no ill intention in crossing the border" so they can be released but that would be up to the judiciary.
The three Americans have said at the time of their detention, they were hiking in scenic mountains of Iraq's largely peaceful northern Kurdish region. Iran initially accused them of illegally crossing the border and later raised spying suspicions, which the U.S. government and the families have called a false pretext for holding them. The families say that if the three ever crossed the Iranian border at all, it was inadvertent.
Shourd grew up in Los Angeles; Bauer is a native of Onamia, Minnesota, and Fattal grew up in Pennsylvania.
Shourd and Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Shourd as an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them last July shortly before their trip to northern Iraq.
By Associated Press Writer Nasser Karimi