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Iran’s leader proposes prisoner swap with US

Wants 8 freed in thanks for hiker’s release

By John Pomfret
Washington Post / September 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — As a US woman who was held in Iran for more than 13 months on spying charges returned home, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said yesterday that the United States should now release eight Iranians who he said were illegally arrested.

At a news conference in New York, Sarah Shourd made her lengthiest comments since her release Tuesday. Shourd said she and two men detained with her never spied or committed any crime, calling their arrest “a huge misunderstanding.’’

Shourd said she was grateful to be back but felt only “one-third free’’ because her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal remain imprisoned in Tehran.

Ahmadinejad, in New York for the UN General Assembly, proposed an apparent swap, suggesting in an interview on ABC’s “This Week’’ that the United States should engineer the release of the eight Iranians.

Ahmadinejad said the Iranian government “took a huge humanitarian measure’’ in releasing Shourd. As such, he said, the US should return the favor and release “the Iranians who were illegally arrested and detained here in the United States.’’

He did not specify which Iranians he wanted to see released. Over the past few years, the United States has either arrested or helped other countries arrest several Iranians on charges related to smuggling restricted weapons-related technology.

Shourd, 32, arrived at Dulles International Airport in Washington before dawn yesterday on a flight from Oman. The Omani government played a key role in negotiating her release and flew her out of Tehran. It was not clear, however, who paid her $500,000 bail.

Bauer and Fattal, both 28, remain in Evin Prison near Tehran. Iran said it plans to try the two men and hold proceedings in absentia for Shourd.

Shourd pledged to work tirelessly until Iran releases the men. “The only thing that enabled me to cross the gulf from prison to freedom alone was the knowledge that Shane and Josh wanted with all their hearts for my suffering to end. My life begins the day I can go and pick them up.’’

She did not criticize Iran for jailing her for more than a year. Instead, she praised the Iranian government and Ahmadinejad for her “compassionate release.’’

Iranian border guards arrested Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal in summer 2009 after allegedly wandering into Iranian territory. Shourd said yesterday that the trio had gone hiking at an Iraqi waterfall and that if they had crossed a border, it was unmarked.

Subsequently they were all indicted in Iran on charges of espionage. Shourd denied those allegations: “We committed no crime, and we are not spies.’’

The hikers’ case has heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran even as the Obama administration has sought to further pressure Iran to abandon what the United States suspects is the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

During the “This Week’’ interview, Ahmadinejad said his country is ready to discuss the nuclear issue. “I think we will have a plan to discuss things,’’ he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in another interview with ABC, said the enhanced sanctions against Iran were beginning to have an effect. “The Iranian regime is quite worried about the impact on their banking system, on their economic growth,’’ Clinton said.

Ahmadinejad countered that the sanctions were “pathetic.’’ He later met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to discuss developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Middle East as well as efforts to resolve the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Nora Shourd had said that her daughter had health issues while detained, including a lump in her breast and precancerous cervical cells. Sarah Shourd said yesterday that she had been checked by doctors in Oman and that “I’m physically well.’’

Shourd did not take questions and left the podium at a Manhattan hotel before the mothers of Fattal and Bauer answered reporters’ queries. Fattal’s mother, Laura, said she was encouraged by Shourd’s release, but it was hard. “It was a very bittersweet moment for me — sweet because I love Sarah very much . . . and very bitter. I mean, the cold hard truth is: Shane and Josh are still in prison, and we want them home,’’ Laura Fattal said.

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