A delegation of U.S. Christian and Muslim leaders returned from Iran Monday disappointed they could not immediately secure the release of two Americans jailed as spies for more than two years, but optimistic their release was imminent.
The delegation said the Iranian government is hopeful that the U.S. will reciprocate and review on compassionate grounds the cases of Iranians jailed in this country.
The delegation met for over an hour Saturday in Iran with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior government officials.
Delegation members say they were invited by Ahmadinejad following their advocacy on behalf of Americans Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who were arrested in July 2009 along the Iraq-Iran border.
The two deny wrongdoing. Their families say they were just hiking in northern Iraq's scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked border. Iran has accused them of spying for the United States.
"We have been promised that our visit was productive and helped accelerate the (pending) release of the hikers," said Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and one of the four members of the delegation.
John Chane, Episcopal Bishop of Washington, said the delegation also met with some family members of more than 60 Iranian citizens who are currently jailed in the U.S. While Chane said there was no discussion of a quid pro quo exchange, "they are looking for some reciprocity here."
The delegation did not discuss individual cases by name, but said there were cases where perhaps early releases could be arranged on compassionate grounds for sickly prisoners, and perhaps other cases where jailed Iranians have been unable to receive visits from family members. Awad said his group planned to investigate those cases.
Ahmadinejad, who appeared to be trying to get the Americans released in time for his arrival at the U.N. General Assembly, also left Monday for New York empty handed. Complicating the release is a deepening internal rift between the president and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts.
Ahmadinejad's rivals in Iran might be seeking to hold up the deal in part to deprive him of the chance to claim credit on the world stage for the release of the Americans.
Iran's courts have considered a deal to set aside the men's eight-year prison sentences and release them on $500,000 bail each. But the hardline judiciary has not given any timetable for a possible release.
Last September, a third American who had been arrested with them, Sarah Shourd, was released after a similar bail payment and a nearly identical tussle between the president and his rivals in the judiciary.
The three Americans _ friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley _ deny the charges.
The official explanation for the delay in their possible release is that a second judge needed to sign the bail papers was on vacation until Tuesday, according to their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei.
Last week, Ahmadinejad suggested a deal to free them could be on the fast track, and the Gulf nation of Oman appeared to be acting as a mediator, as it had with Shourd.
However, Iran's judiciary _ directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei _ quickly slapped him down with a blunt reminder that only the courts have the authority to set the ground rules and timing on a possible release.
More mixed signals followed.
Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said the courts were willing to commute the Americans' sentences in the "near future" as a gesture of Islamic mercy. But Mohammed Javad Larijani, the head of Iran's Human Rights Council and a brother of the powerful judiciary chief, said the men's "crime was not limited to illegal trespassing." They were spying, he said, and "we do not reward spies."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the United States continues to hope the Americans will be released, adding that Washington has received word through a number of sources that the two will be returned to their families.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, Calif. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn. and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.
Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd while in prison.
Associated Press writers Barbara Surk in Muscat, Oman, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.