Freed hikers join families in Oman

Shane Bauer (right) and Josh Fattal, jailed in Iran as spies, left Tehran on Wednesday, closing a high-profile drama.

TEHRAN, Iran -- The release of two American hikers convicted of spying in Iran ended an international drama involving longtime foes, but was also emblematic of the infighting among Tehran's ruling elite that has led to questions about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's grip on power.

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 29-year-old graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, were released Tuesday from Tehran's Evin Prison on a combined bail of $1 million. The Americans were handed over to the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, and were flown to the Persian Gulf nation of Oman, a Washington ally that posted the bail and helped negotiate their release.

The young men joined their families in the Omani capital, Muscat, where an official said they would spend two days before heading home. Also greeting them was Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with the pair in 2009, but released on bail on medical grounds. Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd, who lives in Oakland, Calif., while in prison.

"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," said a statement released by the families of the two men. "We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh's long-awaited freedom knows no bounds."

In a White House statement, President Barack Obama thanked officials of Oman, Iraq and Switzerland for their work leading to the release of the two men.

"We're thrilled that the hikers were released," Obama added in comments to reporters after a meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron on the periphery of the U.N. General Assembly's new session. "We're thrilled for their families. It was the right thing to do. They shouldn't have been held in the first place."

Ahmadinejad raised expectations last week by announcing the two men would be freed in a humanitarian gesture. But their fate quickly became ensnared in the power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the nation's conservative judiciary, which rebuked the president by delaying its decision on bail. The court's announcement Tuesday was curt: "They are bailed out."

Ahmadinejad was not "supposed to have a say in releasing the U.S. hikers," said Farid Modarresi, a political analyst in Tehran. "But he sold the news to the foreign media to promote his own" image before his arrival in New York on Tuesday for the General Assembly session.