- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 14, 2011

TEHRAN (AP) — The Gulf state of Oman dispatched a private plane to Iran on Wednesday amid efforts toward a bail-for-freedom deal for two Americans jailed for spying — in a possible replay of the diplomatic exchange that freed a third member of the group last year.

An Omani official gave no further details on any possible timetable for the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend, Sarah Shourd. The Omani official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivities of negotiations.

The Omani intervention suggested movement on the complicated judicial and diplomatic dealings over the total $1 million bail, which was thrown into doubt earlier Wednesday when Iran‘s judiciary said the deal still needed review.

A plane sent by Oman’s sultan brought Miss Shourd from Iran last September after payment of $500,000 bail. Oman has close ties with both Tehran and Washington and plays a strategic role in the region by sharing control with Iran of the Strait of Hormouz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is the route for 40 percent of the world’s oil-tanker traffic.

The Americans’ defense lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, told the Associated Press he is moving ahead with the bail arrangements with Swiss Embassy officials, who represent U.S. interests in Iran because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. There were no details given on the source of the money.

“I have informed both the hikers’ families and the Swiss Embassy, which represents the U.S. interests, and as soon as the bail is prepared, we will deposit and, God willing, they will be released,” he said.

Earlier Wednesday, Iran‘s powerful judiciary clouded the case by saying it still was reviewing the bail provisions. It was a potentially embarrassing rejection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s prediction that their release could come in a matter of days.

The statement by the hard-line judiciary appeared to be a message that only its officials can set the timetables and conditions on any possible release and not the president, who is locked in a bitter power struggle with Iran‘s ruling clerics, who control the courts.

It also could be a swipe at Mr. Ahmadinejad’s hopes of timing the release of Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal with his expected arrival in New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly.

On Tuesday, Mr. Shafiei said the court handling the case had set bail of $500,000 each for the Americans. Miss Shourd was released last year on the same bail — but only after similar mixed messages between Mr. Ahmadinejad and the judiciary over the timing.

In the end, Mr. Shourd left Iran on an Omani jet just as Mr. Ahmadinejad was heading for New York.

The judiciary statement suggests that the bail plan for Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal still needs to be approved by the higher ranks of Iran‘s legal system, including members of the theocracy’s inner circle.

“Two American citizens charged with espionage have not been released. Request from lawyers of these two defendants to issue bail and free (them) is under study,” the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted the statement as saying.

“Information about this case will be provided by the judiciary. Any information supplied by individuals about this is not authoritative,” the statement added in a clear jab at Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal, both 29, were sentenced last month to three years each for illegal entry into Iran and five years each for spying for the United States. They have denied the charges and appealed the verdicts. Miss Shourd’s case remains open.

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