The State Department on Tuesday welcomed Iran's decision to allow Swiss diplomats to meet with three Americans who have been detained in Iran since being accused of illegal entry in late July.
The move could be seen as a conciliatory gesture on Iran's part, coming two days before a high-profile meeting between Iran and five world powers seeking to persuade Iran to abandon any effort to build nuclear weapons.
"We welcome this step," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. Asked whether it likely is connected to the coming talks in Geneva on nuclear issues, he said: "Hard to say."
The Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, offered few details of the visit.
"Swiss diplomats represent the interests of the United States, and as part of this provide consular protection for U.S. citizens," Swiss Foreign Ministry spokesman Adrian Sollberger told The AP. "In this context, they had direct contact today with the three imprisoned American citizens."
Sollberger said "direct contact" meant they were "personally visited" by Swiss diplomats. He provided no details.
The Swiss represent U.S. interests in Iran because the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with the Islamic republic.
Crowley said it was not clear whether Iran's the decision to grant Swiss access made it more likely the Americans would be allowed to contact their families.
The three Americans are Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd.
Since the Americans' arrest, their families have had no contact with them and no information other than the fact of their detention.
On Sept. 22, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in New York City to speak to attend the United Nations General Assembly, said in an Associated Press interview that he would ask the country's judiciary to expedite the process and to "look at the case with maximum leniency."
His remark sparked hope among the hikers' families that they might be released and allowed to return home.