Video: American hiker reunited with mother, uncle in Oman

  1. Transcript of: American hiker reunited with mother, uncle in Oman

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Overseas tonight, the American hiker Sarah Shourd is free tonight after more than a year in a famous prison there in Iran . But the story isn't over. Our chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell is in Tehran reporting on the fate of Shourd and the two American men who traveled with her and are still being held captive there tonight. Andrea , good evening.

    ANDREA MITCHELL reporting: Good evening, Brian . Thirty-two -year-old Sarah Shourd is a free woman tonight after more than an a year in an Iranian prison, even while her fiance, Shane Bauer , and their friend Josh Fattal remain behind bars. Not quite home, but reunited with her mother and uncle after an international rescue as dramatic as her capture 14 months ago, when the three hikers say they accidently crossed an unmarked border into Iran . Pale and thin after her ordeal, Sarah Shourd said she was grateful even to Iran for letting her go.

    Ms. SARAH SHOURD (Freed United States National): I want to really offer my thanks to everyone in the world, all the governments, all of the people that have been involved, and I especially in particularly want to address President Ahmadinejad and all of the Iranian officials and the religious leaders, and thank them for this humanitarian gesture.

    MITCHELL: But in a carefully staged interview with an adviser to Iran 's President Ahmadinejad , Shourd pointedly appealed for the release of her fiance, Shane Bauer , and their friend Josh Fattal , both 28 years old.

    Ms. SHOURD: I have a huge debt to repay the world for what it's done for me, and my first priority is to help my fiance, Shane Bauer , and my friend Josh Fattal to gain their freedom, because they don't deserve to be in prison anymore.

    MITCHELL: Tonight in New York , Josh 's mother Laura Fattal .

    Ms. LAURA FATTAL: I'm very happy, but it was very bittersweet because I want to have that same happiness, and I know Cindy does, too, and we want Josh and Shane home as soon as possible.

    MITCHELL: Last January, Shane and Sarah became engaged in the prison yard during the one hour a day she wasn't in solitary confinement. The ring? Some string he pulled together and tied into a knot. Now they're separated again, as she was swept from prison to a sleek private jet owned by the government of Oman . Did the wealthy gulf state pay the half a million dollar bail Iran was demanding, which the US refused to pay?

    Mr. P.J. CROWLEY (State Department Spokesman): You're asking if money has changed hands, and the short answer is we don't know.

    MITCHELL: Tonight, Iran said that it released Sarah Shourd on compassionate grounds because she had medical problems, but the prosecutor here said that the two men will have to stand trial on charges of spying. Brian :

    WILLIAMS: Now, Andrea , as we were watching this unfold, even before you left to go there, all these fits and starts, she's not being released, then she's being released.

    MITCHELL: Right.

    WILLIAMS: What's been going on the whole time behind the scenes?

    MITCHELL: Well, there are reports of divisions in the government here in the regime, and the judiciary wanting to keep her in jail, but President Ahmadinejad and his supporters won out, and she finally was released. But it certainly has raised a lot of concern and a lot of issues about what is really going on here.

    WILLIAMS: All right, Andrea Mitchell on the job and on the story.

    MITCHELL: Brian :

    WILLIAMS: In Tehran tonight. Andrea , thanks.

updated 9/14/2010 6:39:47 PM ET 2010-09-14T22:39:47

In just a few dizzying hours, American Sarah Shourd exchanged a cell in Tehran's Evin Prison for a private jet crossing the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, after an apparent diplomatic deal to cover a $500,000 bail and secure a release that seemed in jeopardy from the start.

Shourd was met by her mother and U.S. diplomats at an airfield in the capital of Oman, which U.S. officials say played a critical role in organizing the bail payment and assuring it did not violate American economic sanctions on Iran.

Shourd stepped off the private Omani jet and into the arms of her mother in their first embrace since a brief visit in May overseen by Iranian authorities — and her first day of freedom in more than 13 months. Shourd smiled broadly as they strolled arm-in-arm through the heat of the late summer night along the Gulf of Oman.

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"I'm grateful and I'm very humbled by this moment," she said before boarding the plane in Tehran for the two-hour flight to Oman.

The whirlwind departure of the 32-year-old Shourd brought little change for two other Americans — her fiance Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — who remained behind bars while authorities moved toward possible trials on spy charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted.

The three were detained along the Iraq border in July 2009. Their families say they 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.

"All of our families are relieved and overjoyed that Sarah has at last been released, but we're also heartbroken that Shane and Josh are still being denied their freedom for no just cause ... They deserve to come home, too," said a statement by the three families.

Iran, however, has shown no hints of clemency for the two 28-year-old men. Indictments on espionage-related charges have been filed and Tehran's chief prosecutor has suggested the cases could soon move into the courts, with Shourd tried in absentia.

Iranian infighting
Any other scenario could bring more unwanted attention to the growing rivalries inside Iran's Islamic leadership.

Even the gesture to release Shourd on health grounds — first raised as an act of Islamic benevolence last week by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — turned into a spectacle of high-level political bullying and sniping over who controlled her fate and the overall wisdom of letting her go.

The open bickering seemed to harden the divisions that have been developing since the brush with chaos after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election last year.

Video: American reunited with mother, uncle in Oman (on this page)

On one side are Ahmadinejad and his allies, led by the vast military and economic network of the Revolutionary Guard — what some analysts have called the "militarization" of the Islamic state. The other pole reflects the old guard of Iran's once-unchallenged authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the traditional pillars of the theocracy such as the judiciary.

In Shourd's case, the judges came out on top. They humbled Ahmadinejad and set the ground rules for her release with a staggeringly high bail.

But in the wider sense, the feuds display the fraying consensus among Iran's conservative leadership — with Ahmadinejad's critics increasingly outspoken in their claims he is trying to expand his reach and redraw Iran's political map.

Such rifts could eventually make it harder for Iran to speak in one voice on key issues, such as its nuclear program and any future overtures to end 30 years of diplomatic estrangement with the United States.

Image: Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal
Press TV via AP file
Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran on May 20.

"Iran's leadership managed to put down the opposition after Ahmadinejad's election, and now they are fighting among themselves," said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a professor of Iranian affairs at Syracuse University.

Ahmadinejad may have felt the sting from the judiciary over the handling of Shourd's release. But he came away with the outcome he sought: a goodwill gesture less than a week before he is scheduled to arrive in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly.

Ahmadinejad has said Shourd was being released on compassionate grounds. Her mother says she has serious medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.

Shourd's release, some analysts say, could be used by Iran as a way to deflect the international outcry over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery and the continued crackdown on opposition groups — which led two Iranian ambassadors in Europe to quit this week and seek asylum.

"Ahmadinejad is possibly trying to make the environment less hostile in New York," said Rasool Nafisi, a researcher on Iranian affairs at Strayer University in Virginia.

Timeline: Timeline of the arrests (on this page)

Ahmadinejad's adviser at airport
Even in the last minutes, Ahmadinejad tried to put his stamp on the release. His adviser on women's affairs, Maruyam Mojtahedzadeh, was on hand to greet Shourd at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.

In a statement to Iran's state-run Press TV before boarding the flight to Oman, Shourd thanked Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders for "this humanitarian gesture."

"I want to really offer my thanks to everyone in the world, all of the governments, all of the people, that have been involved and especially, particularly want to address President Ahmadinejad and all of the Iranian officials, the religious leaders, and thank them for this humanitarian gesture," added Shourd, wearing a maroon headscarf and a tan coat.

Upon arrival in Oman, Shourd also thanked the sultan for his help and said she would turn her efforts to trying to win the release of her companions. Her immediate travel plans were unclear. A U.S. official said she would be in Oman for at least a day.

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Shourd, who grew up in Los Angeles, Bauer, who grew up in Onamia, Minn., and Fattal, who grew up in Elkins Park, Pa., were detained on July 31, 2009, and accused of illegally crossing into Iran and spying in a case that has deepened tensions with Washington.

Up until the moment Shourd was led outside the gray walls of Evin Prison, it was unclear whether the opening for her release could just as suddenly close.

A day earlier, a commentary by a news agency linked to the Revolutionary Guard called the bail an insult to Iran's security and intelligence forces. Shourd's family then said they couldn't afford the amount and the State Department noted it would not offer financial help.

Then came the unexpected news from Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, that bail had been paid to Iran's Bank Melli in the Omani capital Muscat. Shourd's family has not disclosed the source of the funds — opening speculation that a diplomatic pact was cut with Oman.

Key role for Oman
A U.S. official said neither the U.S. government nor the families of the hikers put up the money, but could not say who else might have paid it.

All signs pointed to Oman, both a close Western and Iranian ally that wraps around the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula.

Oman is seen as an important diplomatic bridge with Tehran because the two nations share close bonds as guardians of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, the seaway for an estimated 40 percent of the world's oil.

Another U.S. official said Omani negotiators had played a critical, behind-the-scenes role, working with Iran's judiciary and Swiss diplomats who handle U.S. affairs in Iran. Oman was key in coordinating the bail payment, the official said — suggesting some kind of channel to avoid violating American sanctions on Iran.

Both U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

U.S. sanctions put blanket restrictions on transactions with Iran's main state bank, Bank Melli, which has been the channel for past bail payments to Iranian courts by foreign detainees. Washington accuses the bank of helping fund Iran's ballistic missile development and its nuclear program, which the U.S. says could eventually lead to atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks peaceful nuclear reactors for energy.

In a statement, Oman's government said it "welcomes" Shourd's release and hoped "other positive steps will follow in the course of the Iranian-American relations."

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President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton both thanked Oman for its assistance.

Oman "in recent days and weeks became a key interlocutor to help us work this case with the Iranian government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "And we are very grateful to the role that Oman has played."

He could not say if any money had changed hands in winning Shourd's release, but noted that "arrangements were made that satisfied Iranian requirements under their judicial system."

At the same time, Crowley said the U.S. government had no information to suggest any U.S. or international sanctions on Iran had been violated.

Slideshow: Iran’s perilous path in pictures (on this page)

"I am very pleased that Sarah Shourd has been released by the Iranian government, and will soon be united with her family," Obama said in a statement.

Shourd's mother, Nora, said she has hoped and prayed for this moment for 410 days.

"Sarah has had a long and difficult detainment and I am going to make sure that she now gets the care and attention she needs and the time and space to recover," she said. "I can only imagine how bittersweet her freedom must be for her, leaving Shane and Josh behind."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Timeline: Timeline of the arrests

Photos: Iran’s perilous path

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  1. 1921 to 1979: Iran's last monarchs

    After World War I, Reza Khan, a military officer riding a wave of nationalism and backed by Britain, seizes power from King Ahmad Shah. Reza Khan, shown here, is crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1926 and initiates reforms easing social restrictions on women, building the Trans-Iranian Railway and shoring up the nation's finances. The country also drops the name Persia in favor of the local name Iran. His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, succeeds him as shah in 1941, and continues his efforts to modernize the country. (General Photographic Agency / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1941 to 1970s: Our man in Iran

    Succeeding his father, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, here with his third wife, Farah Pahlavi, and their two children, intensifies modernization efforts. But economic turbulence, Cold War politics and disaffection among religious clerics also increase. With backing from the United States, the shah launches a massive industrial and military buildup. But corruption, inflation and a growing disparity in wealth fuel discontent. At the same time, the shah's increasingly dictatorial style and the brutal tactics of his secret police intensify resentment toward the government and spark protests. (James Andanson / Sygma - Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1978: Backlash

    Conservative religious leaders begin a protest movement aimed at the elite. The movement spreads and evolves into violent attacks on the shah's regime and Western culture. The movement is further radicalized on Black Friday, Sept. 8, when government troops fire into a crowd of demonstrators and kill scores. Demands for a democratic Islamic state grow. Movement leaders call for the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious and political radical exiled in Paris. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1979: Khomeini triumphs

    The shah, announcing a brief vacation, leaves Iran and hands over governance to a moderate party, sparking celebrations throughout the country. Ayatollah Khomeini returns to Tehran from Paris to a rapturous welcome from millions of Iranians. Within weeks, his movement topples the new government. Although he talked about democracy while he was in exile, Khomeini establishes a strict theocracy led by Muslim clerics. "Revolutionary courts" mete out summary justice to former officials and pass measures to nationalize much of the economy. The Islamic Republic of Iran is established on April 1. (Campion / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Nov. 1979 to Jan. 1981: Hostage crisis

    Iranian students occupy the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and take 66 Americans hostage. They demand the extradition of the shah, who is in the U.S. for cancer treatment. U.S. President Carter orders banks to freeze billions in Iranian assets. In April 1980, the U.S. secretly lands troops in Iran to rescue the hostages. The mission ends in disaster after a helicopter and a transport aircraft collide, killing eight U.S. soldiers. The hostages are finally freed, but the failed rescue effort damages Carter's re-election bid and the crisis mars U.S. attitudes toward Iran for decades. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1980 to 1988: Iran-Iraq War

    Iraq invades Iran following border skirmishes and amid a dispute over a key waterway, beginning a bloody eight-year war. Washington and Moscow vow to halt arms sales to Iran and Iraq. But officials in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration orchestrate secret arms sales to Tehran, in part to fund anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua. This scandal becomes known as the Iran-Contra affair. In 1988, Iran accepts a cease-fire with Iraq. Estimates of the number of war dead range up to 1.5 million, and both sides keep thousands of prisoners of war. A final exchange of POWs occurs in 2003. (Henri Bureau / Sygma - Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1988: Tragic mistake

    The U.S. cruiser Vincennes shoots down an Iranian Airbus airliner in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people. Naval authorities say the crew of the Vincennes, part of a force escorting oil tankers in the area, mistook the airliner for an attacking Iranian F-14 fighter, and U.S. investigators clear the ship's officers. The incident draws vows of revenge from Iranian extremists and condemnation from moderates. Here, Iranians view caskets of the Iranian dead. (Irna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 1989 After the ayatollah

    The death of Ayatollah Khomeini's opened the way for gradual moderation in Iran's domestic and foreign policies. Shown here is the frenzied mourning that accompanied the ayatollah's funeral procession, during which the crowd broke open the casket. President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wealthy businessman who also has political and religious connections, leads the country for nearly a decade. He introduces economic reforms, but maintains Iran's distance from the West. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 1997 to 2005: Fight for reform

    In 1997, Mohammad Khatami, shown on posters, is overwhelmingly elected president with strong support from young people and women. He makes symbolic changes, such as naming the first woman to a Cabinet position since 1979. U.S.-Iranian tensions begin to wane and Washington eases some sanctions and restrictions on Iran, trying to bolster reformers. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on U.S. targets, Iran vows to aid in the war on terror. Khatami wins a second term in 2001, but his presidency is marked by a difficult struggle with religious conservatives. (Mohammad Sayyad / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 2001 to 2002: Mood swing

    As Iranian moderates and conservative Islamists struggle for political supremacy, the administration of newly elected U.S. President George W.Bush takes a harder line toward Tehran. Skeptical of the prospects for gradual reform in Iran, the White House releases statements urging Iranians to change their government. Then, in January 2002, President Bush brands Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil," claiming that all three are pursuing weapons of mass destruction and exporting terror. The U.S. posture sparks a backlash on the streets of Iran, bolstering nationalism and undermining the progress of moderates. (Martin H. Simon / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 2002 to 2009: Nuclear showdown

    Suspicions surface about Iran's nuclear program. Tehran insists it is a purely civilian pursuit, but satellite images and other intelligence suggest it also is pursuing nuclear weapons. EU negotiators press for more extensive inspections of Iran's facilities in return for economic and political perks, but they encounter growing Iranian intransigence. In 2005, hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumes the Iranian presidency and vows irreversible resumption of uranium enrichment. Negotiations falter, prompting the U.N. Security Council in late 2006 to approve targeted sanctions against Iran. (Emamifars / Abaca) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 2009: Tension with hints of reconciliation

    U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the issue of Iran in his first primetime news conference, saying it’s important to engage in “direct diplomacy.” But tensions still run high between Tehran and Washington. Iranian students tear up a picture of the president-elect on his inauguration day. Yet there are hints of a more conciliatory attitude from Iran’s government, with Ahmadinejad telling a rally that his country is ready for dialogue, provided talks are based on mutual respect. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. June 2009: Challenger emerges

    Former Iranian prime minister and presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi greets supporters during a campaign rally at Enghelab stadium, west of Tehran, on June 6. Mousavi, a moderate, emerged as the main challenger to hardline Ahmadinejad, who sought a second term in office. (Farzaneh Khademian / Abaca) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. June 2009: Victory for Ahmadinejad?

    Thousands of supporters of Ahmadinejad wave flags during a massive rally on June 14 after the government said he won re-election. (Atta Kenare / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. June 2009: Turmoil in Tehran

    Tens of thousands of supporters of opposition candidate Mousavi stage days of demonstrations. Islamic leaders promise a limited recount after five days of protests. Authorities ban foreign news reporting from the streets, making it difficult for Western media to confirm many reports, including attacks on demonstrators by a state-backed militia. Here, protesters carry the body of a man allegedly shot by the militia on June 15. (Str / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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