Ahmadinejad promises release of American hikers

U.S. hikers Shane Bauer (left) and Josh Fattal could be free within days after an Iranian court set bail of $500,000 each for the men arrested more than two years ago.

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday he intends to release two Americans who have been jailed on charges of espionage for two years and grant them a "unilateral pardon."

"I am helping to arrange for their release in a couple of days so they will be able to return home," Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post in an hour-long interview at his office.

The Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were arrested along with another American, Sarah Shourd, while they were hiking along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009. Last month, Bauer and Fattal were sentenced to eight years in prison.

Shourd was released in September 2010 on medical and humanitarian grounds after posting $500,000 bail.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was "encouraged" by Ahmadinejad's comments. There was no immediate reaction from the families of Bauer or Fattal.

The promise to free the hikers could eliminate a key flash point in relations between Iran and the United States, although many more remain. It comes just weeks before Ahmadinejad is due to visit New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting, and it coincides with other conciliatory actions by Iran, including a letter to European Union officials offering new talks on Iran's nuclear program.

It was not clear, however, whether Iran's diplomatic outreach included the kinds of concessions that Western officials say would be necessary to resume talks that have been suspended since they broke down in January.

In the interview Tuesday, Ahmadinejad suggested he was open to a resolution of the standoff over the country's uranium-enrichment program, although apparent deals have fallen apart in the past.

Masoud Shafiei, a lawyer representing the hikers, said he had been told by court officials that each of them would have to pay $500,000 in bail, as Shourd had to do. He said the bond was being demanded because, even though Bauer and Fattal have already been convicted, their case is open to appeal and a final verdict has not been rendered.

"Basically if they don't pay their bail, they won't be freed," Shafiei said. "I don't know who arranged this, the court or the president."