Iranian Diplomat Says U.S. Hikers to Go Free

BAGHDAD -- Iran's ambassador to Iraq said Thursday he expects two Americans who have been charged with espionage and held in Tehran for more than two years will be released "very soon."

Hassan Dannaie Fir said he doesn't have any specific details about when Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be freed from Evin Prison in northern Tehran. But he described a general sympathy for the two men, both 29, especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that began Monday.

"We hope and expect that very soon they will be released," Fir said during an hour-long interview with The Associated Press at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

In Tehran, "the general atmosphere is that they will be released," Fir said.

Pardons are traditionally handed down during Ramadan.

Bauer, Fattal and a third American, Sarah Shourd, were arrested in July 2009 after straying off an unmarked road in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

Shourd was released last September on $500,000 bail but still faced the espionage charge.

The three denied the espionage charges and maintain they were hiking in Iraq and mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall. While other parts of Iraq remain troubled by violence, the semiautonomous Kurdish north has drawn tourists in recent years, including foreigners.

The case has added to tensions between the United States and Iran that were already high over other issues, including Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

The U.S. government has appealed for the two Americans to be released, insisting they have done nothing wrong.

The two countries have no direct diplomatic relations, so Washington has been relying on an interests section at the Swiss Embassy in Tehran to follow the case.

In Baghdad, the Iranian diplomat disputed the Americans were hiking at the time of their arrest although he stopped short of accusing them of nefarious motives in crossing the border.

"When they entered Iranian territory from Iraq, they didn't come from the mountainous part. They entered from the plains territory," Fir said.

"They were not hiking. Where they were arrested, there is no waterfall and no mountain," Fir said.

Last Sunday, the Iranian lawyer representing Bauer and Fattal said he expects the court to announce its verdict in their case this week.

The lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said he hoped that even if the Americans were found guilty, they would only be sentenced to time already served.

Shafiei insisted the authorities have no evidence to prove espionage, noting that the area where the Americans were detained has a porous and unmarked border.

The three Americans are friends from their student days at the University of California-Berkeley.

Shourd, now 32, and Bauer got engaged in prison before she was released on what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said were humanitarian grounds following health issues.

Shourd is back living in Oakland, California; Bauer grew up in Onamia, Minnesota; and Fattal is from suburban Philadelphia.