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Iran frees U.S. hiker Sarah Shourd

By Thomas Erdbrink and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 14, 2010; 7:11 PM

TEHRAN - Iranian authorities on Tuesday released American hiker Sarah Shourd after more than a year of imprisonment and the posting of a $500,000 bond, leaving her American fiance and a friend still in custody.

Shourd's sudden departure on a private plane to the Persian Gulf nation of Oman was the latest wrinkle in the saga of the three Americans who were arrested last year hiking in mountains along the border between Iran and Iraq. The arrests have complicated U.S. diplomacy in the region as the Obama administration has sought to pressure Iran to end its alleged nuclear weapons program. Iran said Tuesday that it had no plans to release the two men anytime soon.

Speaking at an airport in Tehran before she left, Shourd, 32, thanked Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "for this humanitarian gesture." Shourd's mother, Nora, who was reunited with her daughter in Oman, had said that Shourd was being denied medical treatment for a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.

President Obama said that he was "very pleased" that Shourd was released but that her two companions - Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 28 - remain imprisoned, although they have "committed no crime."

Shourd and Bauer became engaged in May while in custody. All three hikers have been charged with espionage, which they have denied.

Shourd's case became entangled in Iranian political infighting in recent weeks, with the government and the judiciary disagreeing over whether she should be released. A government-organized ceremony to announce her release had been scheduled for Saturday. But it was postponed after judicial authorities objected, saying her case had not been finalized. Analysts noted that the judiciary chief is a brother of parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a rival of Ahmadinejad's. Larijani lost to Ahmadinejad in a 2005 presidential vote and continues to be a critic of the president's policies.

On Tuesday, a court Web site reported that Shourd, held In Iran since July 2009, was freed from prison "at the order of the case inspector and with the agreement of the Tehran Prosecutor."

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi told Iran's English-language Press TV on Tuesday that the bail was paid at a branch of the government-owned Bank Melli Iran in Muscat, the capital of the sultanate of Oman. Unspecified "representatives" of Shourd paid the money, he said. It was also unclear who provided the plane.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Bank Melli since 2007, and the European Union since 2008, for the bank's alleged involvement in Iran's nuclear program. But State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said: "We're not aware of any information that would trigger sanctions in any way," regarding the payment of the $500,000 bail.

Shourd's bail payment marked the third time in the past year that Iranian authorities have been paid to secure the release of foreigners. In October, Maziar Bahari, who worked for Newsweek, was released after posting $300,000 in bail. In May, Clotilde Reiss, a French scholar, was let go after she was convicted of espionage and paid a $300,000 fine.

"The United States did not pay anything for her release," Crowley told reporters, referring to Shourd. "Someone provided sufficient assurances to the government of Iran that satisfied, you know, their stipulations for release."

Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Crowley thanked the Swiss government and Oman for securing Shourd's release. Oman "in recent days and weeks became a key interlocutor to help us work this case with the Iranian government," Crowley said. "And we are very grateful to the role that Oman has played."

Of all the countries in the region, Oman maintains the closest ties to Tehran, said Ray Takeyh, an expert on Iran at the Council on Foreign Relations. In the 1970s, the shah of Iran dispatched troops to put down a rebellion in Oman, and the two countries have maintained close ties since, despite Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, he said. "I am not surprised they played a critical role in this," Takeyh said of Oman.

The United States and Oman also have close ties and have signed a free-trade agreement, although it has yet to be ratified by Congress. "It's always been under the radar screen," said Steven Cook, a specialist on the Persian Gulf region at the Council on Foreign Relations, "but the relationship is one of the strongest Washington has in the gulf."

In a statement, the families of the three hikers thanked Iran for "showing compassion in Sarah's case" but they called on Iran to free Fattal and Bauer. "They deserve to come home too," the statement said. "Iran has no grounds to deprive them of their liberty a moment longer."

erdbrinkt@washpost.com pomfretj@washpost.com

Pomfret reported from Washington.

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