The Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were arrested along with another American, Sarah Shourd, as they hiked along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. Last month, Bauer and Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison.
Shourd was released in September 2010 on medical and humanitarian grounds after posting $500,000 bail.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was “encouraged” by Ahmadinejad’s comments. There was no immediate reaction from the families of Bauer or Fattal.
The promise to free the hikers could eliminate a key flash point in relations between Iran and the United States, although many more remain. It comes just weeks before Ahmadinejad is due to visit New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, and it coincides with other conciliatory actions by Iran, including a letter to European Union officials offering new talks on Iran’s nuclear program.
It was not clear, however, whether Iran’s diplomatic outreach included the kinds of concessions that Western officials say would be necessary to resume talks that broke down in January.
In the interview Tuesday, Ahmadinejad suggested he was open to a resolution of the standoff over the country’s uranium-enrichment program, although apparent deals have fallen apart in the past.
$500,000 bail demanded
Masoud Shafiei, a lawyer representing the hikers, said he had been told by court officials that each of them would have to pay $500,000 in bail, as Shourd had to do. He said the bond was being demanded because, even though Bauer and Fattal have been convicted, their case is open to appeal and a final verdict has not been rendered.
“Basically if they don’t pay their bail, they won’t be freed,” Shafiei said. “I don’t know who arranged this, the court or the president. The judiciary has said that everything is being done according to their procedures.”
Ahmadinejad said Bauer and Fattal will be “free to choose” how they return to the United States. Ahmadinejad’s decision to pardon the men is subject to review by Iran’s clerical authorities.
Bauer, Fattal and Shourd were hiking in the mountains of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region on July 31, 2009, when, according to their families, they strayed across the border by accident. Authorities in Tehran confirmed three days later that the three had been arrested, and an Iranian Arabic-language television network quoted police sources as saying the hikers were “CIA agents.”
Bauer and Shourd were free-lance journalists who were living together in Damascus, Syria, where Shourd also taught English and was studying Arabic, friends and relatives said. Fattal is a friend of Bauer’s who was visiting the Middle East to explore his father’s roots in Iraq. All three graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.