ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Three Americans accused of spying in Iran were temporarily let out of Evin prison to meet their mothers at a Tehran hotel today. The mothers called on Iranian authorities to free their adult children, who have been held since July 2009 for crossing illegally from northern Iraq into Iran.
Clutching flowers and wearing conservative Islamic dress, the mothers hugged the three in a tearful reunion broadcast by Iranian state media. Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal say they accidentally strayed across the border while hiking.
“Please, please let them go,” Mr. Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey, of Pine City, Minn., said after the two hour meeting. “It would be a good gesture for the world to see Iran doing a humanitarian act.”
The mothers hoped to bring their children home, but were uncertain if Iranian allegations of spying would be dropped. “We have requested their freedom but I don’t know what will happen,” Mrs. Hickey said at a press conference, in which all six appeared before microphones and cameras.
Mothers, prisoners praise good treatment
Ms. Shourd said it was “difficult” to be alone so much of the time, while her two male friends were able to be together. It was “terrible to be away from our families for this long,” she said. “We’ve only received one phone call and that was five minutes long and that was amazing – we waited and prayed for that every day. This [meeting] is something obviously we’ve been praying for and it makes a huge difference.”
“Shane and Josh are in a room together but I’m alone and that’s the most difficult thing for me,” said Shourd, who is able to see the other two twice a day.
Bauer said he had “good relations with the guards. We have good books to read.” Mr. Fattal said he was “very happy to see my mom again.”
“We will tell everyone about our reception here, and we already have been treated so beautifully, and we will tell everyone about this reception, absolutely,” said Laura Fattal, in comments broadcast on PressTV.
The mothers were “very grateful to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the authorities for granting us our visas,” added Hickey. “We know that this is a great humanitarian act that they have given to us. Our reception was wonderful when we came into Iran.”
The meeting was brokered by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles US interests in the Islamic Republic, with which Washington broke ties after the seizure of the US Embassy in November 1979, soon after the Islamic revolution.
No indication of an imminent release
Iranian officials have given no indication that the three detainees will be released.
On Wednesday, Iran’s Minister of Interior Heydar Moslehi said the mothers were granted week-long visas because Iran “acted in accordance with Islamic teachings and in a humanitarian way.” But he also renewed espionage charges, saying on Wednesday the three were “spies” who had entered Iran “illegally.”
In recent months, Iranian officials have said they have “compelling evidence” that the three Americans were “cooperating with intelligence services” – accusations denied by the families and the US government.
An Iranian lawyer representing the Americans said “anything is possible” to resolve the issue. “It doesn’t have the feel of a normal court case,” Masoud Shafii said, according to the Associated Press.
Speculation Iran seeks prisoner swap
During the press conference, the American detainees said they have not been formally charged. Iranian officials – including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – have repeatedly linked the three Americans to the fate of 11 Iranian nationals that they say are “illegally” held in the US.
Iran’s state-run English-language PressTV reported Iran’s intelligence chief saying on Wednesday that “unlike the Iranians in American custody, the three detained Americans are being treated well and humanely.”
The frequent linkage has led to speculation that Iran is pursuing an exchange, not unlike one that Iran requested for young French woman Clotilde Reiss, who was teaching French in Isfahan and then arrested on spying charges during post-election protests last summer.
France suspected of prisoner exchange deal
Last December, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner ruled out a “swap” of Ms. Reiss for Ali Vakili Rad, an Iranian agent who murdered Iran’s former prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, in Paris in 1991.
“What does he want?” Mr. Kouchner was reported as saying five months ago. “He wants to make us swap Clotilde Reiss for Vakili Rad, that’s to say the assassin of Shahpour Bakhtiar. It’s out of the question.”
Yet in recent weeks, a series of events has prompted widespread speculation that Iran did strike a deal with France – which has been one of the loudest proponents of new UN sanctions against Iran. France has made similar deals in the past for the freedom of French citizens. Shortly after Ms. Reiss was freed, France released Mr. Rad.
On May 7, a French court denied a US extradition request for Iranian engineer Majid Kakavand, on charges of smuggling sensitive American dual-use electronics to Iran through Malaysia. The move was greeted with triumph in Tehran.
Nine days later Reiss was set free in Tehran and allowed to go home. Though she and the French government deny any deal was struck, a former French intelligence agent claimed that Reiss had, in fact, been a useful “informant” in contact with French intelligence in Tehran, and “wrote reports on the atmosphere and in the area of arms proliferation.”
Reiss this week “categorically” denied the “lies” of former French intelligence members, in a statement to Agence France-Presse. She said: “I’m shocked to discover such a climate of suspicion in my own country, when that’s what I had to live with in Iran.”
Tehran source: Iran believed Reiss was French agent
A source in Tehran close to Iranian intelligence circles stated in communication with the Monitor several months ago that Iran believed Reiss was a French agent, who among other activities had been making deliberate contact with construction workers involved in building Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
Two days after Reiss arrived back in Paris, a French judge effectively ended Rad’s life sentence for murder by issuing an expulsion order. State-run TV showed the convicted assassin arriving back in Tehran to a hero’s welcome.
“A prisoner exchange deal raises questions about both the autonomy of the French courts and France’s commitment to preventing the illicit procurement of sensitive items for Iran’s missile and nuclear programs,” the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said in an analysis yesterday. “While the unlawful detention of foreign nationals in Iran is cause for concern, this quid pro quo makes more likely the occurrence of further groundless detentions…and [Iran] now has a French precedent to follow.”