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Does American hiker Sarah Shourd's release help Ahmadinejad?

American hiker Sarah Shourd's release was supposed to be a 'gift' from Ahmadinejad, who heads to the United Nations next week amid intense international pressure. But his actions riled conservatives in Iran.

By Staff writer / September 14, 2010

In this May 20 file photo, American hikers Shane Bauer, left, Sarah Shourd, center, and Josh Fattal, sit at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran, Iran.

Press TV/AP/File

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Istanbul, Turkey

American hiker Sarah Shourd was released by Iran today after more than 13 months in prison. Her release, delayed by apparent political wrangling behind the scenes, is the latest twist of an internal power struggle inside Iran that comes just days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travels to the US.

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Ms. Shourd and her companions, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, were arrested in July 2009 for allegedly crossing into Iran while hiking in northern Iraq. The Islamic Republic has since accused the trio of spying, with Iranian prosecutors saying they had “compelling evidence” of links to US intelligence agencies.

State-run PressTV reported that Shourd had been handed over to the Swiss Embassy, whose diplomats look after US interests in Iran, after it provided a bank guarantee for $500,000 bail. Tehran's prosecutor general, Abbas Jafar Dolatabadi, told PressTV that the bail was deposited in an Iranian bank in Oman and Shourd “was set free and she can leave Iran.”

IN PICTURES: US hikers detained in Iran

News reports said she departed Iran on a chartered plane for Oman, where family was waiting.

For her, it's the beginning of the end of a saga, though the detentions of Mr. Bauer – her fiancé – and Mr. Fattal have been extended for two months, and Mr. Dolatabadi said all three would still have to stand trial for espionage.

But for Mr. Ahmadinejad, it's just one more chapter in the power struggle that's been unfolding for months below the surface in Iran. His attempt to orchestrate Shourd's release as a "gift" ahead of his trip next week to the United Nations riled conservatives in Iran's judiciary, who made it clear that Shourd would be released only on their terms.

“Ahmadinejad does interfere in the work [of the judiciary and parliament], he comes and announces this woman will be released, and it’s not his job to do that,” says Massoumeh Torfeh, an Iran specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

“That problem is related to the fact that Ahmadinejad announced it first, in order to put himself across as a good candidate for talks with the United States. He wanted to say he did it,” she adds. “But the judiciary wants to say, 'It has nothing to do with you, shut up and be quiet, it’s our affair.' ”

Mad that Ahmadinejad stole the show?

Shourd’s freedom had originally been slated to begin Saturday, in an act portrayed by some officials as an act of clemency after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The sudden announcement came via text message to journalists in Tehran from the Islamic Guidance Ministry. At first, it was to take place at the same north Tehran hotel where the three were allowed to meet with their mothers last May.

But then news spread that the release of the American was thanks to the intervention of Ahmadinejad, and that a larger venue – the presidential palace – had been chosen for the event. Reports from inside Iran suggested that the release was taking on greater pro-Ahmadinejad political significance, at a time when Iran is under immense pressure and sanctions from the West over its nuclear policies, the stoning execution of a woman, and other issues.

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