TEHRAN, Iran _ Iran's foreign minister said Saturday that the courts are willing in "the near future" to commute the prison sentences for two Americans convicted of spying. The Americans' lawyer, meanwhile, was in court trying to arrange a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal.
The release rests in the hands of the hard-line judiciary, and Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi gave no clear timetable. He also raised the issue of Iranians held in U.S. prisons, suggesting the Americans' release might be drawn out to bring attention to inmates Iran wants freed.
In a case that has added to the acrimony and deep distrust between Iran and the U.S., Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd. Shourd was released last September with mediation by the Gulf nation of Oman after $500,000 was paid.
The two men were convicted of illegally entering Iran and spying for the United States, and were sentenced to a total of eight years in prison each.
They denied the charges and appealed the verdicts, opening the way for the possible deal to free them in exchange for $500,000 bail each.
Salehi said at a news conference that Iran's judiciary was ready to commute the sentences as a gesture of Islamic mercy. But he did not give any clearer indication of when they could be released.
"The judiciary's decision is to commute (the Americans') punishment," the foreign minister said. "We expect the judiciary to make its decision in the near future."
"We hope this issue will be finalized so that both families of Iranians who are waiting (for inmates in U.S. prisons) as well as the families of these U.S. nationals will, God willing, hear good news," Salehi said.
He did not specifically mention any Iranian detainee, although officials in Tehran have often complained about alleged mistreatment of Iranians in American custody.
The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a dirt road while hiking near a waterfall in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Considerably more stable and peaceful than other parts of Iraq, the Kurdish north has attracted some adventurous foreign tourists keen to see its scenic mountains.
Shourd and Bauer, who got engaged after their arrest, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was a freelance journalist and Shourd was an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them shortly before their trip to Iraq. Bauer is a native of Minnesota, Shourd is from Oakland, California, and Fattal grew up in suburban Philadelphia. The three are graduates of the University of California at Berkeley, where they became friends.
International efforts recently intensified to seal the bail deal for the two Americans. Mediators from Iraq and Oman have asked Iran to free them, and an Omani plane is in Tehran to carry the pair out of Iran if a deal is reached.
The Americans' defense lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, moved ahead with bail arrangements and told The Associated Press he was in court "following up the case."
Shafiei said two judges have to sign the bail papers before bail can be posted. Then, the Americans could be released, the Iranian lawyer said, adding that only one judge had signed Saturday.
The first word of the bail offer for Bauer and Fattal came earlier in the week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He said the Americans could be freed in a matter of days. But Iran's powerful judiciary then responded that the bail provisions were still under review.
The mixed signals could reflect the bitter internal political feuds inside Iran between Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts. Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran's Islamic establishment.
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.