Iran’s president said he is hopeful the United States will release several Iranians it is holding now that Tehran has freed an American jailed for more than a year and accused of spying.
Before setting off for a trip to the U.N. General Assembly, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the release of the Iranians would be an appropriate moral gesture by Washington.
“We are hopeful the Iranians there will be released and reunited with their families,” he said in a state TV interview broadcast Friday night.
American Sarah Shourd was released Tuesday after more than 13 months in prison in what Iranian officials have described as a humanitarian gesture because she is said to be in ill health. Two other Americans with whom she was arrested last year — Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — are still being held in a Tehran prison on espionage charges.
Ahmadinejad has suggested in the past that the three could be traded for Iranians held in the U.S., raising concerns that the Americans were to be used as bargaining chips as the two countries face off over issues like Iran’s disputed nuclear program. In December, Iran released a list of 11 Iranians it says are in U.S. custody.
One of them, nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri, returned to Iran in July. Iran said he had been kidnapped during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009 and taken to the United States. Washington said he was a willing defector who later changed his mind and was allowed to return home.
Iran’s president said the U.S. should now release the others.
“From a moral viewpoint, there is an expectation that the U.S. takes a step,” Ahmadinejad said. “There is an expectation in public opinion to release some of them.”
Speaking of Shourd’s release, he said, “We hope they appreciate this job.”
Iranian officials have said Ahmadinejad personally intervened to get Shourd released on medical grounds. Her mother has said the 32-year-old Shourd has a lump on her breast and precancerous cervical cells.
The three Americans were detained along Iran’s border with Iraq in July 2009 and later accused of spying. Their families say the Americans were innocent hikers in the scenic mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish region and if they did stray across the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.
The Gulf sultanate of Oman played a key role in helping mediate the release of Shourd, who left Tehran Tuesday and flew to Oman’s capital, Muscat, where she reunited with her mother.
A relative says they plan to travel to New York on Saturday. The U.S. Embassy in Muscat has said Shourd will gave a statement to the press before leaving the Omani capital. Family spokeswoman Samantha Topping said Shourd and her mother will also speak to reporters during a news conference Sunday at a New York hotel.
Their families are calling on Ahmadinejad to bring the other two Americans with him when he comes to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Ahmadinejad left Saturday for New York, stopping along the way for official visits to Syria and Algeria.
Oman’s foreign minister said Friday that he is not aware of any plans for Iran to release the other two other Americans.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters the U.S. is “absolutely committed to the return of Josh and Shane,” and appealed to Tehran to let them go.
“These two young men have been held without cause now for more than a year. It would be a very significant humanitarian gesture for the Iranians to release them as well,” Clinton said.
She also spoke with the men’s parents Thursday to reassure them about efforts to bring their sons home.
Iran’s list of citizens it says are held in the U.S. includes three Iranians who have been convicted or charged in public court proceedings in the United States.
The circumstances surrounding some of the others are more mysterious. They include a former Defense Ministry official who vanished in Turkey in December 2006 and three others who Iran says were abducted in Europe and sent to the U.S.
Those involved in public court proceedings include Baktash Fattahi, a legal U.S. resident arrested in April 2009 in California and charged with conspiracy to export American-made military aircraft parts to Iran.
Another, Amir Amirnazmi, is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who was convicted by a court in Pennsylvania in February 2009 of business dealings with Iranian companies banned under U.S. sanctions.
The third Iranian, Amir Hossein Ardebili, was sentenced to five years in prison in December 2009 by a court in Wilmington, Delaware, after pleading guilty to plotting to ship U.S. military technology to Iran. Iran has called it a show trial and said Ardebili was abducted in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2007 before being handed over to U.S. authorities in 2008.
The list also includes an Iranian arrested in Canada on charges of trying to obtain nuclear technology and two others who Iran says are being held in the U.S. without charge.
Schreck reported from Muscat, Oman. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.