Iran's Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi has suggested that it's time for Washington to propose a prisoner swap if it wants to secure the release of three U.S. citizens who were arrested in July 2009 after straying across the Iraq-Iran boder.
Moslehi said in comments to reporters on May 23 that he has no doubts that the three -- Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 27 years old, and 31-year-old Sarah Shroud -- are spies.
"Their status as spies is explicit and certain," Moslehi said, suggesting that a "gesture" on the part of Washington is in order.
The intelligence minister's comments came after the mothers of the three, who claim that they mistakenly strayed across the border, traveled to Tehran last week to try to convince the Iranian authorities to release them on humanitarian grounds.
Alluding to the mothers' visit, Moslehi said: "Our expectation is that the Americans, with their claim on human rights issues, should initiate an action so that we can decide on whether or not there would be [a swap]."
No Plans For A Swap
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on Iran to release the three hikers, whom U.S. officials have described as innocent tourists, and the State Department has stated that Washington is not contemplating any prisoner swap with Iran.
But the suggestion by the Iranian intelligence minister has led to speculation about just whom Iran might have in mind. Previous statements place the focus on a list of 11 Iranian citizens whom Tehran claims are in U.S. custody.
Among them is Shahram Amiri, a nuclear researcher from Iran's Malek Ashtar University, who went missing in the summer of 2009 while on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Amiri reportedly had possible ties to Iran's nuclear program. His whereabouts remain unclear. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has accused the United States of kidnapping the researcher, a claim rejected by U.S. officials.
The list also includes Alireza Asgari, a former deputy defense minister who disappeared in Turkey in 2007. Asgari's relatives in Iran have accused the West of abducting him. But there have also been suggestions that Asgari defected to the West and that he has no intention of returning to Iran.
Several names on the list include Iranian citizens accused of illegal arms dealings, some of them arrested in Europe, Canada, and the United States.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley discounted the possibility of a swap in comments made last week but added that "if Iran has questions about any of its citizens and whether we have any information as to their whereabouts, we would be more than happy to receive that diplomatic note and respond to it."
Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic ties since 1980, with the Swiss government representing Washington's interests.
In September 2009, in an interview with the U.S. television network NBC from the presidential compound in Iran, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad linked the issue of the U.S. hikers to that of Iranians "in U.S. prisons right now with no good reason."
'More Than We Can Bear'
The interview was conducted as the mothers of the American hikers were calling on Ahmadinejad to bring their children with him during his trip later that month to New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly.
"I'm not happy that they have been arrested," Ahmadinejad said during the interview. "But these individuals had violated our borders." He went on to compare the situation to the detention by U.S. forces of five Iranians in Irbil, Iraq, in 2007. The five were released in the summer of 2009.
The defense lawyer for the three detained Americans, Massoud Shafii, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda today that the mothers had been hoping to return home with their children. Upon their return to the United States, Sarah Shroud's mother, Nora, said that "the pain of having to leave Tehran without our children is almost more than we can bear."
Shafii, however, does not rule out that Iranian officials might still set the prisoners free.
"Speaking as their lawyer, I would say we need to wait until the case investigation is completed," he said. "And the investigation -- as I understand -- has nearly been completed and the case will be sent to the court. However, speaking as an ordinary person, I can say that all options are possible in this regard."
Shafii said Sarah Shroud suffers from an illness that requires regular medical checkups and that her prolonged stay in prison might endanger her health.written by Farangis Najibullah, based on Radio Farda material and agency reports