MINNEAPOLIS – As Sarah Shourd prepares to spend her first weekend in more than a year outside a Tehran prison, the families of the two Americans left behind wonder what more they can do to win their release.
In many ways, they are in the same place they'd been for months. They have no details about Iran's espionage case against Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal and are left with limited options given the tattered U.S.-Iran relationship.
But the mothers of Bauer and Fattal remain hopeful even as their sons' fate may depend less on what they do and more on the power struggles inside the Iranian government.
"It's a very helpless feeling," Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, told The Associated Press this week.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to travel to New York for the U.N. General Assembly next week. Hickey and Fattal's mother, Laura Fattal, hadn't decided Friday whether to push for a personal meeting with Ahmadinejad. They tried and failed to get one last year.
Though unlikely, both said they hope the Iranian leader will show up in New York with their sons in tow as a humanitarian gesture.
"The release of Sarah has given us a sense of new hope, that it is a precursor for a release of Shane and Josh very soon," Fattal said Friday. "We think it's good President Ahmadinejad is coming to this country — the U.N. is an international forum for peace, and I'm always optimistic with these big meetings."
But U.S.-based experts on Iran said the ultimate fate of Bauer and Fattal depends mostly on the struggle between Ahmadinejad, who is trying to consolidate his power, and rival conservatives, particularly those in the country's judicial system.
"They have this expression in Iran — when two elephants fight, it's the grass that gets hurt," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East Studies at Syracuse University. "This might be the case as well with the hikers — their fate is going to depend a lot on who has the upper hand in Iran."
Several days of confusion over whether and when Shourd would be released reflected those internal struggles. Shourd was finally released Tuesday, after officials in Oman stepped in to mediate Iranian demands that included $500,000 bail.
Shourd has been staying with her mother in Oman, but her aunt, Karen Sandys, said the Shourds planned to travel to New York on Saturday. Family spokeswoman Samantha Topping said Shourd and her mother will speak to reporters during a news conference Sunday at a New York hotel.
Sandys, who said she spoke to Sarah by phone on Thursday, said her niece is happy to be free and is now focused on securing the freedom of Fattal and Bauer.
"Sarah feels good, but she said she actually can't feel free until they're out, that it's not complete. So she feels an incomplete kind of freedom," Sandys told the AP from her home in Berkeley, Calif.
On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said U.S. officials were relieved by Shourd's release and "committed to the return of Josh and Shane."
"These two young men have been held without cause now for more than a year," Clinton said in Washington. "It would be a very significant humanitarian gesture for the Iranians to release them as well."
Oman's foreign minister said Friday that he's not aware of any current plans for Iran to release Bauer and Fattal but his country is willing to act as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, which don't have diplomatic relations.
In late July 2009, Shourd, Bauer and Fattal were on what their families have described as an innocent hiking trip in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region when Iranian authorities took them into custody along the two countries' border. Their families say the three University of California at Berkeley graduates — Bauer, 28, a freelance journalist; Shourd, 32, his girlfriend (now fiance) and a language teacher; and Fattal, 28, an environmental activist — were only sightseeing.
But Iranian officials say the three crossed into their country intentionally and accuse them of spying. Iran has shown no hints of clemency for Bauer and Josh Fattal, who remain behind bars as authorities move toward possible trials that could bring up to 10 years in prison if they're convicted. Indictments on espionage-related charges have been filed and Tehran's chief prosecutor has suggested the cases could soon move into the courts, with Shourd tried in absentia.
Hickey, who lives near Pine City, Minn., stressed this week what she sees as a longstanding contradiction in the case against her son: The idea that Bauer, who published work in several left-wing news outlets, would have agreed to spy for the U.S. government.
"He's been critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East," Hickey said. "The thought of him working in any capacity for the U.S. government is ridiculous."
Before Shourd's release, the families complained for months that they, their Tehran-based lawyer and the prisoners had no access to details of the case against them. The families' attorney, Masoud Shafiei, hadn't been allowed to meet with the trio until shortly before Shourd's release.
In a brief phone conversation with Shourd after her release, Hickey and Laura Fattal said she told them their sons were in decent spirits and confident of resolving their case soon. But the mothers are as worried as ever about the "mental and physical stresses on Josh and Shane," Laura Fattal said.
Hickey said her family has a history of ulcers, particularly concerning to her after Bauer complained of stomach problems when the mothers visited the prisoners last May. Bauer is a native of Onamia, Minn. Shourd grew up in Los Angeles, while Fattal grew up in Elkins Park, Pa.
Boroujerdi said he doubted Bauer and Fattal would end up with a long prison term. He said the two were likely more valuable as bargaining chips in the standoff between the U.S. and Iran over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"I frankly don't believe these espionage charges are going to mean lifetime imprisonment for these guys, or execution," Boroujerdi said. "That has not been the track record of the Iranian state for the last 30 years. They usually hold on to these people as long as it's useful, until — at the right time and for the right price — they release them."
Associated Press writers Haven Daley in Berkeley, Calif., Matthew Lee in Washington and Adam Schreck in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS that news conference is scheduled for Sunday, not Monday.)