Foreign minister gives no clear timetable but says the move is a gesture of Islamic mercy.
Hikers jailed for spying will be freed by Iran's courts in the 'near future'
TEHRAN // Iran's foreign minister said yesterday that the country's courts are willing in "the near future" to commute the prison sentences for two Americans convicted of spying.
The pair's lawyer has been in court trying to arrange a US $1 million (Dh3.67m) bail-for-freedom deal.
The release rests in the hands of the hard-line judiciary and the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, gave no clear timetable.
He also raised the issue of Iranians held in US prisons, suggesting that the Americans' release might be drawn out to bring attention to inmates Tehran wants freed.
In a case that has added to the acrimony between Iran and the US, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 along with their friend Sarah Shourd.
Ms Shourd was released last September thanks to mediation by Oman and after $500,000 bail was paid.
The two men were convicted of illegally entering Iran and spying for the US.
They 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.
Mr Salehi said 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 punishment," Mr Salehi said. "We expect the judiciary to make its decision in the near future.
"We hope this issue will be finalised so that both families of Iranians who are waiting [for inmates in US prisons] as well as the families of these US nationals will, God willing, hear good news."
He did not specifically mention any Iranian detainee, although officials in Tehran have often complained about alleged mistreatment of Iranians held in American custody.
Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal have said 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.
Ms Shourd and Mr Bauer, who got engaged after their arrest, had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Mr Bauer was a freelance journalist and Ms Shourd was an English teacher.
Mr Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them shortly before their trip to Iraq.
Mr Bauer is a native of Minnesota, Ms Shourd is from Oakland, California, and Mr 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 the country if a deal is reached. The Americans' defence lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, moved ahead with bail arrangements and said he was in court "following up the case".
Mr 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 yesterday.
The first word of the bail offer for Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal came earlier in the week from the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He said that 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 Mr Ahmadinejad and the country's powerful ruling clerics, who have control of the courts.
Mr Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran's Islamic establishment.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said on Thursday that the United States continues to hope the Americans will be released.
She added that Washington has received word through a number of sources that the two men will be returned to their families.
The last direct contact family members had with Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal was in May 2010, when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.