The release of two American hikers jailed in Iran for alleged espionage appears imminent after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the American media yesterday that he would grant them a "unilateral pardon".
Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 29, have spent nearly 800 days in Tehran's Evin prison since they unwittingly strayed across Iraqi Kurdistan's poorly defined border with Iran in July 2009.
"I think these two persons will be freed in a couple of days," Mr Ahmadinejad told NBC's Today show. It would be a "humanitarian gesture", the Iranian president claimed in a separate interview with the Washington Post.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said she was "encouraged" by his comments. After a closed door trial, a revolutionary court last month sentenced the two Americans to five years in jail on charges of spying for the United States, which they vehemently denied, and a further three years for entering Iran illegally.
Iranian officials had previously intimated that they could be freed after time served as a humanitarian gesture during Ramadan. By quashing that severe sentence, Iran might believe it appeared all the more magnanimous. The move was an attempt by Mr Ahmadinejad, who revels in the international limelight, to burnish his image before he travels to New York to address the UN General Assembly next week, analysts said.
"It's blatantly obvious. He wants to present himself as a man of reason and compassion at home and abroad," Scott Lucas, an Iran expert at Birmingham University in Britain, said in a telephone interview.
Mr Ahmadinejad this week made himself readily available for long interviews in his Tehran office with correspondents from NBC and the Washington Post. His hardline rivals in Iran's clerical-led judiciary, however, appeared keen to undermine the president's boast that the release of the two Americans was "unconditional". They promptly made clear that each man must first pay bail of US$500,000 (Dh1.83 million), which was the same amount set for a third hiker arrested with them, Sarah Shourd. She was released last September on "humanitarian" and medical grounds after 14 months spent mostly in solitary confinement. She returned home shortly before Mr Ahmadinejad travelled to New York for the UN General Assembly.
It was understood at the time that the Iranian president wanted all three hikers to be freed, but the judiciary refused. Despite his virulent anti-western rhetoric, Mr Ahmadinejad's hardline opponents suspected he wants to cosy up to the US because improved relations with what he calls "global arrogance" would be popular with many Iranian voters.
If so, the three Americans hikers were not only trapped in the heavily mined diplomatic no-man's land between Tehran and Washington, but were also pawns in Iran's internal power struggle.
Tehran in the past linked their fate to that of several Iranians it said the US had "illegally" detained, which raised fears the Americans were being held as bargaining chips.
Mr Ahmadinejad alluded to that link yesterday, claiming that Bauer and Fattal were living in hotel-like conditions.
"You know how many Iranians are now in American jails? They're all human beings. It's not only about two people in Iran," he said in his NBC interview.
As it happens, Bauer and Fattal have languished for the past 25 months in a single small cell with one tiny window and fluorescent strip lights that were never switched off.
They have been allowed just one short, daily turn in a high-walled exercise yard.
Ms Shourd, 32, and Bauer were engaged in Evin prison in May 2010 and plan to marry when he is released.