The release of two Americans convicted of spying in Iran may be postponed, according to a statement from the country's powerful judiciary that contradicts assurances made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, who were arrested in 2009 along with Sarah Shourd while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border, were supposed to be freed on $500,000 bail each, according to their defence lawyer. Shourd was released in 2010.
Ahmadinejad also told NBC's Today Show Tuesday that the men would be released in "a couple of days" on humanitarian grounds.
A statement released by the Iranian judiciary Wednesday, however, suggests that the bail plan for Bauer and Fattal still needs to be approved by the higher ranks of Iran's legal system, which include members of the theocracy's inner circle.
"Two American citizens charged with espionage have not been released. Request from lawyers of these two defendants to issue bail and free [them] is under study," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency quoted from the statement.
"Information about this case will be provided by the judiciary. Any information supplied by individuals about this is not authoritative."
Some see the delay as a jab at Ahmadinejad, who is locked in a bitter power struggle with Iran's ruling clerics who control the courts. It could also signal a growing rift between the Iranian president and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme ruler who is allied with the judiciary, the New York Times reported.
It also comes at a potentially embarrassing time for the Iranian president, who is due in New York next week for the UN General Assembly.
Attorney moving forward with bail arrangements
Analysts expect the two Americans will be released, but at a time of that is amenable to Khamenei and the ruling clerics, not Ahmadinejad.
Masoud Shafiei, the defence attorney for Bauer and Fattal, said he is moving ahead with the bail arrangements with Swiss Embassy officials, who represent U.S. interests in Iran because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries.
There were no details given on the source of the bail money.
An unnamed official from Oman — the country that previously worked as an intermediary to free Shourd — said a private plane had been sent to Tehran Wednesday amid efforts to secure the release of the two Americans.
The official could not give a timetable on a possible resolution to the situation.
Courts delayed Shourd's release in 2010
Bauer, Fattal and Shourd have said they were hiking in the mountainous regions of northern Iraq when they mistakenly crossed into the unmarked border in Iran. They were arrested in July 2009.
Shourd was released on $500,000 bail in September of last year, leaving on a private jet headed for Oman just as Ahmadinejad was travelling to the UN.
The judiciary also blocked attempts to free Shourd in 2010, pushing back a planned release date by several days just hours before she was to be let go.
Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison for spying and entering the country illegally last month.
The three have maintained their innocence and President Barack Obama has denied they were tied to any U.S. intelligence efforts.
The continued detention of Fattal and Bauer has added to tension between the U.S. and Iran over the latter's nuclear program.