Iran: U.S. hikers' release not "imminent"

U.S. hikers Shane Bauer, left, and Josh Fattal, detained in Iran on spying charges, arrive for the first session of their trial at the Tehran Revolutionary Court in the Iranian capital on February 6, 2011, more than 18 months after their arrest on the unmarked border with Iraq during a hiking trip.
AFP/Getty Images

The release of two American hikers held in the Islamic Republic for two years -- which seemed imminent on Tuesday - has been cast into doubt just 24 hours later.

Iran's Justice Ministry has denied, via the nation's state television network, that the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal is imminent, directly contradicting remarks on Tuesday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told two American media outlets the men could be freed this week.

"The two Americans are going to stay in prison for a bit longer. Reports of their imminent release are wrong,'' a judiciary official said, according to Iran's state-run Press TV.

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Ahmadinejad is embroiled in a power struggle with the ruling clerics who have the ultimate say on all matters in Iran, and the American hikers have become pawns in that fight - adding intense loops to the emotional roller coaster their families have been riding since their arrest in 2009.

The Justice Ministry is headed by a powerful cleric from Iran's ruling elite, but even his decisions must fall in line with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei's word is final in the Islamic Republic.

Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally entering Iran while hiking in Iraq. They insist it was an innocent mistake, and the border is poorly marked in the area they were hiking.

Their travel companion Sarah Shourd was arrested at the same time but released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail and returned to the United States. Shourd's case is officially still open in Iran, but she has campaigned vigorously for her friends' release since returning to the U.S.

The Justice Ministry announced Tuesday that bail had been set for the two men at $500,000 each -- a move taken as a strong indicator that Ahmadinejad's remarks might actually be based on a decision among the clerics to allow the Americans' release.

Press TV said Wednesday, however, that according to judiciary sources, the bail decision was being "reviewed".

Meanwhile, a plane from Oman has been sent to Iran amid efforts to free the Americans, an Omani official said. Oman played a key role in brokering the deal to release Shourd.

In spite of the conflicting news, a lawyer for Bauer and Fattal in Tehran tells CBS Radio News' Toula Vlahou that he feels confident his clients will be freed.

Masoud Shafii tells Vlahou he is still waiting for the bail, and expects his clients' release on Wednesday or Saturday.

Another Tehran lawyer, not involved in the hikers' case, sees less cause for optimism, however.

"The legal process regarding the hikers was never a normal one," prominent Iranian attorney Muhammad Mustafaei told CBS News on Wednesday. "They were actually taken as hostages. They were used by the Supreme Leader because of the hostility that exists between Iran and the U.S."

"I do not believe they will be released anytime soon," added Mustafaei, who represented a young Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning. The international attention brought by celebrities and Western governments to the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, Mustafaei's client, led Iran's leaders to stay her execution indefinitely.

Ahmadinejad is to travel next week to New York to deliver a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. Many believe the president would like to bring the hikers back to U.S. soil at the same time, as a gesture of his standing in Iran.

In an interview Tuesday morning with a Washington Post reporter in Tehran, Ahmadinejad said the two American men would be granted a "unilateral pardon".

"I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home," he told the Post's reporter in Tehran. "This is of course going to be a unilateral humanitarian gesture."

Well aware of the whimsical nature of Iran's leaders, the Fattal and Bauer families issued a joint statement Tuesday saying they were "hopeful" the men would be released, but clearly reluctant to celebrate before Josh and Shane are back on U.S. soil.

This is the second dramatic reversal from Iran's factitious government on the hikers this year.

Just days before their eight year prison sentences were handed down in August, Ahmadinejad's office indicated their release could be pending.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.