Reporting from Beirut and Tehran — Two Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq were released Friday, a day after Iran allowed three young Americans detained in the Islamic Republic since last July to meet with their visiting mothers.
Iraqi officials handed the detainees to Iran's embassy in Baghdad this morning, and they will leave for Iran as soon as possible, a report on the website of state-owned English-language Press TV said.
The moves are the latest hints of behind-the-scenes deal-making between Iran and the West over the fate of detainees.
Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, told Iranian state radio that U.S. servicemen arrested and jailed Ahmad Barazandeh seven years ago and Ali Abdollahi three years ago "on the basis of groundless accusations" and for traveling without passports.
Kazemi-Qomi described both Iranians as "pilgrims" who had traveled to Iraq to visit Shiite Muslim holy sites. Press TV said the two men were arrested in Najaf and Samarra, both hosts to important Shiite religious sites.
On Thursday, Iranian officials allowed maternal visits for Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd, three Americans arrested last year after allegedly crossing illegally into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. They are being held in Tehran's Evin Prison.
The three, described by their supporters as innocent hikers but accused by Iranian officials of espionage, are to spend Friday with their mothers as well, said Masoud Shafii, their lawyer.
Tehran has complained that the U.S. is illegally holding Iranian nationals, including several purported to be defectors leaking information about Iran's nuclear program, the focal point of a years-long confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the West.
On Friday, the mothers of Shourd, Fattal and Bauer were also taken to meet the families of imprisoned Iranians arrested by U.S. forces three years ago at an office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil , the semi-official, hard-line Fars News Agency reported. Americans described the Iranians as spies, but Tehran insists they are diplomats manning an office that issued visas to Iraqis travelling to Iran.
Though Iranian and Western officials strenuously deny holding each others' nationals as diplomatic bargaining chips, independent analysts speculate that's just what they are doing.
Earlier this week Tehran allowed jailed French researcher Clotilde Reiss to go home just days after France, one of the leading proponents of increasing pressure on Iran, rejected a U.S. extradition request for an alleged Iranian arms smuggler.
Within days of Reiss' arrival in Paris, the French interior ministry allowed a paroled Iranian assassin to head back home after 19 years in custody.
"The close association of these events strongly implies that France engaged in an unwise quid pro quo with Iran," said an analysis posted online by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank.
email@example.com Mostaghim is a special correspondent