Report: Oman sending delegation to Iran to try to win release of 2 American prisoners

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A delegation from Oman was expected to visit Iran to pursue the release of two American men imprisoned for more than a year, an Iranian newspaper said.

The Gulf sultanate of Oman played a key role in securing the Sept. 14 release of a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with the two men still held — Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal.

The hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami, which is not state-run but close to the ruling establishment, reported the possible Omani visit, which was to occur as early as Sunday. It said that if the Americans are released, they will be able to leave with the delegation for the Omani capital Muscat.

Foreign Ministry officials in Oman could not immediately be reached for comment. Masoud Shafiei, the Iranian lawyer for the Americans, told The Associated Press he was not aware of the Omani visit.

Shourd's release, which the Iranians said was on compassionate grounds because of illness, was a bittersweet milestone in a saga that has become one of many irritants in fraught U.S.-Iranian relations. She left behind her fiance Bauer and their friend Fattal to possibly face trial on espionage charges.

But her release raised hopes that Omani mediators may be able to also intervene to help her companions. Shourd was released after officials in Oman, an ally of Iran and the United States, mediated a $500,000 bail that satisfied Iranian authorities and apparently did not violate U.S. economic sanctions against Tehran. The source of the bail payment has not been disclosed.

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York to attend the U.N. General Assembly. During his visit, he met with Shourd and told The Associated Press he hopes Bauer and Fattal would be able to provide evidence "they had no ill intention in crossing the border" so they can be released.

Ahmadinejad said the release might be possible, but that is up to Iran's hard-line judiciary.

The three Americans were jailed in July 2009. They have said at the time of their detention, they were hiking in scenic mountains of Iraq's largely peaceful northern Kurdish region. Iran initially accused them of illegally crossing the border and later raised spying suspicions, which the U.S. government and the families have called a false pretext for holding them. The families say that if the three ever crossed the Iranian border at all, it was inadvertent.

Shourd grew up in Los Angeles; Bauer is a native of Onamia, Minnesota, and Fattal grew up in Pennsylvania.

Shourd and Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Shourd as an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them last July shortly before their trip to northern Iraq.