An American hiker held in Iran for 410 days was on her way home Tuesday, but questions linger about the deal that was struck for her freedom — including what it may have cost.
Sarah Shourd, 32 (right), embraces her mother, Nora Shourd, at the royal airport in Muscat, Oman, on Tuesday after leaving Tehran, Iran. The man behind them is unidentified.
Sarah Shourd, 32 (right), embraces her mother, Nora Shourd, at the royal airport in Muscat, Oman, on Tuesday after leaving Tehran, Iran. The man behind them is unidentified. Sultan al-Hasani/AP
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, fielding questions about the release of Sarah Shourd, was careful to avoid any implication that Washington cut a deal involving a $500,000 "bail" payment initially requested by Tehran.
"You're asking if money has changed hands?" Crowley asked in response to one reporter's question. "The short answer is: We don't know."
"All I can say is if the question is did the U.S. government pay anything for this release, the answer is no," he said at an afternoon briefing. "As to what arrangements were made that satisfy requirements under the Iranian judicial process, we were not a party to that."
He said that despite U.S. sanctions against Iran, he was unaware of anything in the deal for the 32-year-old Shourd's release that would violate them.
Two other Americans arrested with Shourd for crossing illegally into Iran and spying — her fiance, Shane Bauer, and their friend Josh Fattal — are still being held.
Shourd's case — like those of journalist Roxana Saberi a year ago in Iran and more recently those of teacher Aijalon Gomes and journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea — highlights the difficult task diplomats face when a U.S. citizen is caught up in legal or political trouble in a so-called rogue state.
The U.S., which broke off formal ties with Tehran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, has long used Pakistan and Switzerland as go-betweens to deal with the Iranians.
President Obama on Tuesday expressed his gratitude to Switzerland and the Sultanate of Oman "and other friends and allies around the world who worked tirelessly and admirably over the past several months to bring about this joyous reunion."
Before boarding a plane out of Tehran, Shourd indicated that she realized what it took to gain her release.
"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," Shourd told Iran's English-language Press TV.
Shourd's release on bail was handled primarily by Swiss and Omani diplomats. The Iranian government asked for $500,000 — a sum Shourd's parents said they could not meet. Some analysts who spoke to NPR said Switzerland may have posted the bail, while others think Iran may have simply waived the bail.
Author and academic Selig Harrison, who informally advised the sister of Laura Ling during the journalists' six-month detention in North Korea, says in recent dealings with Pyongyang, the involvement of former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter probably served a dual purpose: to gain the release of Americans and create a back channel to the White House.
"I believe the North Koreans are ready to resume negotiations on the nuclear issues," Harrison says, referring to the impasse and sanctions imposed by the United States over Pyonyang's nuclear ambitions. "So, the use of high-level emissaries in these cases gives them a way to deliver that message."
But the Obama administration, Harrison believes, was concerned that Clinton's mission trip to North Korea last August and Carter's visit last month not become a negotiation.
"They moved very, very slowly and let those girls languish a lot longer than was necessary, I think," Harrison said.
In any case, the approach of using a high-level envoy outside the government has been effective in the case of North Korea, where the government of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il speaks with a single voice.
Iran represents a different kind of challenge, Harrison says:
"You have a very serious conflict in between the Foreign Ministry, which represents the more moderate elements in the government, and the Intelligence Ministry and its allies in the Revolutionary Guard, who are harder-line," he says.
And there's another problem with sending a high-profile envoy to Iran, says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
"If you were looking for a major American political figure that would have real persuasion with Iran, I don't know who you'd look to," she said.
The demand for bail is common in past cases involving foreigners detained in Iran, especially those involving dual nationals, Maloney said. Most families cannot afford the bail and must therefore put up property as collateral, she said. Although the cases rarely go forward, the bail remains as a guarantor that the defendant won't speak out against the Iranian government.
The timing of Shourd's release has been attributed to the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a traditional time of clemency in the Islamic world. Meanwhile, Shourd's medical condition is said to be deteriorating — her mother has said Shourd suffers from a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Shourd was being released on compassionate grounds because of health concerns. But Maloney thinks the decision to release her now has more to do with Ahmadinejad's scheduled appearance before the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month and is no coincidence.
"It was a way for Ahmadinejad to put a positive spin on a really egregious situation," she said. "He has a lot of pride in his appearances in America. "It's funny, but he thinks he's adored here."
"This is a way for him to come in as a conquering hero, releasing this poor woman on humanitarian grounds," Maloney added.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report