Oman says no plans to free 2 other Americans held in Iran, but it wants to help mediate

By Adam Schreck, AP
Friday, September 17, 2010

Oman: No plans to free 2 other Americans in Iran

MUSCAT, Oman — Oman’s foreign minister said Friday he’s not aware of any plans for Iran to release two other Americans still being held there, but that his country stands willing to act as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington.

The Gulf sultanate played a key role in helping mediate the release of American Sarah Shourd from Iran on Tuesday.

She has been staying in Oman with her mother since then but is planning to travel to New York on Saturday, her aunt Karen Sandys told The Associated Press.

Sandys, who spoke to Shourd by phone on Thursday, said her niece is happy to be free and is now focused on securing the release of two other Americans with whom she was arrested last year — Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. They are still being held in a Tehran prison.

“Sarah feels good, but she said she actually can’t feel free until they’re out, that it’s not complete. So she feels an incomplete kind of freedom,” Sandys said at her home in Berkeley, California. She said Shourd planned to give a news conference on Monday when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

The mothers of Bauer and Fattal have called on Ahmadinejad to bring their sons with him, but Oman’s foreign minister, Yusuf bin Alawai bin Abdullah, said there was no indication any deal is in the works.

“We would like to help and find ways and means to help,” he said by phone from the southern Omani city of Salalah. But he added, “at this moment there are no plans” for the other prisoners to be released.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters the U.S. is “absolutely committed to the return of Josh and Shane,” and appealed to Tehran to let them go.

“These two young men have been held without cause now for more than a year. It would be a very significant humanitarian gesture for the Iranians to release them as well,” Clinton said.

She also said spoke with the men’s parents Thursday to reassure them about efforts to bring their sons home.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley later said Clinton spoke with Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, by telephone and thanked him for his nation’s role in securing Shourd’s release. They also discussed the two remaining jailed Americans.

“They agreed to stay engaged and to work cooperatively to do everything possible to bring about the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal,” Crowley said.

To help secure Shourd’s freedom, Oman, which is considered an ally by both Washington and Tehran, played intermediary for a $500,000 bail that satisfied Iranian authorities and apparently did not violate U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.

The 32-year-old Shourd left Tehran for Muscat aboard a royal Omani jet late Tuesday. American and Omani officials say she has been in Oman since, and she has not been seen publicly since the night of her arrival.

Bin Alawai declined to say who in Oman posted the bail payment, or even confirm whether any money changed hands.

“That was worked out,” he said, adding that “neither party wants to disclose” how the bail payment was handled.

The three Americans were detained along Iran’s border with Iraq in July 2009 and later accused of spying. Their families say the Americans were innocent hikers in the scenic mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish region and if they did stray across the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.

Bauer and Fattal remain in Tehran’s Evin Prison and could soon face trial. Convictions on the spy charges they face could bring sentences of up to 10 years in prison.

Oman has acted as a behind-the-scenes mediator between Tehran and Washington for years, giving it a unique perspective on the two adversaries’ points of view.

The sultanate has in the past allowed the U.S. military access to air bases for refueling, logistics and storage. But it also is in close contact with nearby Iran, with which it shares control of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes.

Bin Alawai said he believed there are now “great possibilities” to repair relations between the United States and Iran.

To help restore ties, he urged American officials to tone down what is seen as harsh rhetoric directed at Iran.

“The rhetoric does not necessarily help. You see we have a different culture, but a common interest, in this region,” he said.

“Our policy,” he added, “is not to push our friends to confrontations.”

In Tehran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that in light of Iran’s decision to free Shourd, he hopes that Washington will reciprocate and release Iranians held in the U.S.

“We are hopeful that Iranians there will be released and reunite with their families,” Ahmadinejad said on state television. “From a moral viewpoint, there is an expectation that the U.S. will take a step. There is an expectation in public opinion to release some” Iranians in U.S. custody.

In the past, Ahmadinejad has suggested the jailed Americans could be traded for Iranians that Tehran claims the U.S. abducted and sentenced to prison terms.

Associated Press video journalist Haven Daley in San Francisco, California, and Associated Press reporters Matthew Lee in Washington and Patrick Condon in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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