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Middle East

Iranian scientist's appearance sparks hopes for US hikers' release

Video by Ed O'KEEFE

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-07-13

News of missing Iranian scientist Shahram Amiri's Washington appearance has sparked reports of a potential swap deal for three US hikers (photo) detained in Iran. Although there's no confirmation of the reports, the hikers’ families live in hope.

The incredible story of a missing Iranian scientist dramatically showing up at the Pakistani embassy in Washington has sparked speculation over whether the scientist’s appearance could be linked to a possible swap deal for three US hikers detained in Iran in 2009.

On Tuesday, Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri surfaced at the Iranian interests section of the Pakistani embassy in Washington, apparently requesting to be returned home and claiming he was abducted by US agents.

Amiri disappeared while on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June 2009. Iran has long maintained that he was abducted and flown to the US by CIA agents. The Iranian State TV Web site reported that Amiri, in a phone call from Washington, had claimed to have been under psychological pressure in recent months.

But in an interview with FRANCE 24, a US State Department official, who declined to be named, maintained that “Amiri has been in the US of his own free will and he is leaving of his own free will”. She declined to provide further details of his stay in the US or the manner in which he would leave.

The claims and counterclaims, along with three video clips of a man purporting to be Amiri but offering contradictory narratives, put many spy thrillers to shame. As analysts scramble to get to the truth of the murky story, a number of likely explanations have been circulating in international policy circles, including suggestions that Amiri – if indeed he was in US custody – might be swapped for three US hikers who have been held in Tehran since July 2009.

The three hikers - Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal – were detained on July 31, 2009 when they were hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, according to their families and friends. Initial reports said the three had accidentally wandered into Iranian territory in the mountainous area along the Iran-Iraq border.

But in a report in the US weekly The Nation, local villagers said the hikers were detained on the Iraqi side of the border.

While Iranian officials have made references to the possibility of trying them for espionage, no official charges have been announced.

‘We’re always hoping’

For Nora Shourd, mother of 31-year-old Sarah Shourd, one of the three captured hikers, the news of Amiri’s mysterious appearance in Washington has sparked hopes that her daughter and her two friends could be released.

“We’re always hoping,” said Shourd in a phone interview with FRANCE 24 from London, where she is currently on a European tour to raise awareness of her daughter’s plight. “It’s difficult for the families [of the abducted hikers]. We always hope that some development will tip it over and our children will be released. So, I’m always hoping.”

But Shourd maintained that she was not aware of any deal, negotiations or links between the Amiri case and the three hikers.

“This story is so strange, there are so many versions of the story, you don’t know what to believe,” said Shourd. “But no, we haven’t heard anything from any US officials. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Speaking to FRANCE 24 on Tuesday, a US State Department official said the US government has repeatedly called, and continues to call, for the hikers’ release. But she denied reports of any negotiations concerning their release. “Regarding any reports of their release, I would refer you to the Iranian authorities,” she said.

In brief remarks to reporters in Washington about the incident on Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Amiri was free to leave the US and return home.

“These are decisions that are his alone to make,'' Clinton said. “In contrast, Iran continues to hold three young Americans against their will, and we reiterate our request that they be released and allowed to return to their families on a humanitarian basis.''


Date created : 2010-07-13

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