Americans leave Iran after release

Two hikers convicted as spies reunite with families after 26 months in custody

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MUSCAT, Oman — After more than two years in Iranian custody, two Americans convicted as spies took their first steps toward home Wednesday as they bounded down from a private jet and into the arms of family for a joyful reunion in the Gulf state of Oman.

The families called this “the best day of our lives,” and President Obama called their release - under a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal - “wonderful news.”

The release capped complicated diplomatic maneuvers over a week of confusing signals by Iran’s leadership on the fate of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

Although the fate of the two gripped America, it was on the periphery of the larger showdowns between Washington and Tehran that include Iran’s nuclear program and its ambitions to widen military and political influence in the Middle East and beyond.

But - for a moment at least - U.S. officials may be adding words of thanks in addition to their calls for alarm over Iran.

For Tehran, it was a chance to court some good will after sending a message of defiance with hard-line justice in the July 2009 arrests of the Americans along the Iran-Iraq border. The Americans always maintained they were innocent hikers.

“Today can only be described as the best day of our lives,” said a statement from their families. “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds.”

Mr. Obama called it “wonderful, wonderful news about the hikers, we are thrilled. … It’s a wonderful day for them and for us.”

The families waited on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the main international airport in Oman’s capital, Muscat. Also returning to Oman was Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal but freed a year ago.

At about 20 minutes before midnight, Mr. Fattal and Mr. Bauer raced down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. They made no statements to reporters before walking into the airport terminal building, which was guarded by security officials. The men appeared thin, but in good health.

“We’re so happy we are free,” Mr. Fattal told reporters in Oman. The two men made brief statements before leaving the airport with their families.

“Two years in prison is too long,” Mr. Bauer said, and hoped their release from prison will also bring “freedom for political prisoners in America and Iran.”

In many ways, the release was a mirror image of the scene last year when Miss Shourd was freed on $500,000 bail. That deal, too, was mediated by Oman, an Arabian peninsula sultanate with close ties to both Tehran and Washington.

A statement from Oman said it hoped the release would lead to better ties between Iran and the U.S.

The gray metal gates of Tehran’s Evin prison opened last year for Miss Shourd - as it did for her companions on Wednesday - as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing for the spotlight in New York at the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders. He is scheduled to address the world body again Thursday.

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