- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

TEHRAN  (AP) — Two Americans jailed in Iran as spies left Tehran on Wednesday bound for the Gulf state of Oman, closing a high-profile drama with archfoe Washington that brought more than two years of hope and then heartbreak for the families.

In the end, however, Iran‘s clerics opted for a near mirror image of last year’s release of a third American captured with the other two — opening the doors of Tehran’s Evin prison in exchange of $500,00 bail each while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing for the spotlight in New York for the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations.

Although the fate of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal 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 the United Nations at least — U.S. officials and rights group may be adding words of thanks in addition to their calls for alarm over Iran.

The Iranian state news agency IRNA said Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal left Iran just as darkness fell in the capital, Tehran. The fast-moving final steps — from the gray prison gates to Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport in a diplomatic convoy — came after a week of mixed signals and political brinksmanship within Iran‘s leadership.

It began last week with Mr. Ahmadinejad promising their release within days. But then came the voice of the hard-line ruling clerics, who have waged a stinging campaign against the president and his allies in recent months as part of power struggle.

The clerics appeared to be sending a message that only they had the power to set the timing and ground rules to release the men, who were detained along with friend Sarah Shourd along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. The three strongly denied the charges of espionage and said they were merely hikers in Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdistan region who wandered close to Iran‘s border.

An Omani official told the Associated Press the men were flying to the capital, Muscat. He added that family members are in Muscat to be reunited with Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He did not say how long the two men will stay in the Gulf state before heading home to the United States.

This was the same route followed by last September by Miss Shourd, who received a marriage proposal from Mr. Bauer while in prison. Oman has close relations with Tehran and Washington and has acted as mediator in the releases and the apparent transfer of the bail money because of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran. Oman plays a strategic role in the region by sharing control with Iran of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is the route for 40 percent of the world’s oil tanker traffic.

In one possible parting shot by Iran, the release came just minutes before President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly. There was no direct evidence that Iran timed the Americans’ freedom to overshadow Mr. Obama’s speech, but Iran has conducted international political stagecraft in the past.

Most famously, Iran waited until just moments after Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration in January 1981 to free 52 American hostages held for 444 days at the former U.S. Embassy after it was stormed by militants backing Iran‘s Islamic Revolution. The timing was seen as a way to embarrass ex-President Jimmy Carter for his backing of Iran‘s former monarch.

Associated Press reporters saw a convoy of vehicles with Swiss and Omani diplomats leaving Evin prison bound for Mehrabad Airport, which is near Tehran’s massive Azadi Square. The site is used for military parades but also was a temporary hub for protesters after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Switzerland represents American interests in Iran because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Tehran since after the storming of the embassy.

“I have finished the job that I had to do as their lawyer,” said their defense attorney, Masoud Shafiei. He obtained signatures of two judges on a bail-for-freedom deal. A $1 million bail — $500,000 for each one — was posted.

Though the release eases one point of tension between Iran and the U.S., major conflicts still persist.

Washington and European allies worry Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as cover to develop atomic weapons and have urged for even stronger sanctions to pressure Tehran. Iran denies any efforts to make nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, is deeply concerned about the U.S. military on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Tehran sharply denounces U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal, both 29, were sentenced last month to eight years each in prison.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International called the release of the Americans a “long overdue step.”

“Iranian authorities have finally seen sense” and have agreed to release the two Americans, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. “They must now be allowed to leave Iran promptly to be reunited with their families.”

Mr. Bauer, Miss Shourd and Mr. Fattal — friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley — have maintained their innocence and denied the espionage charges against them.

Their families and the U.S. government said they just were hiking in northern Iraq’s scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they accidentally may have strayed over the unmarked border with Iran.

The last direct contact family members had with Mr. Bauer and Mr. Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.

It was not clear where the two men will be reunited with their families after their release.

Phone messages left for Mr. Fattal’s mother and brother in Philadelphia were not immediately returned Wednesday.

Since her release last year, Miss Shourd has lived in Oakland, Calif. Mr. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Mr. Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.

Last week, Oman again dispatched a plane belonging to the Gulf country’s ruler to the Iranian capital to fetch the two men if the freedom-for-bail agreement was reached.

The case of the three Americans closely parallels that of freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American who was convicted of spying before being released in May 2009. Ms. Saberi was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and let her return to the U.S.

In May 2009, a French academic, Clotilde Reiss, also was freed after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was commuted.

Last year, Iran freed an Iranian-American businessman, Reza Taghavi, who was held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing in the southern city of Shiraz, which killed 14 people. Mr. Taghavi denied any role in the attack.

Associated Press writer Saeed el-Nahdy in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.

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