Three Americans jailed in Iran for 10 months hugged and kissed their mothers in an emotional reunion Thursday after the women arrived on a mission to secure the release of their children. One of the prisoners said they all hoped to go home together in the trio's first public comments since their arrest.
Nora Shourd, Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal threw their arms in the air and rushed to embrace their children as they entered the room at the Esteghlal Hotel in north Tehran, in footage aired on Iran's state-run Press TV.
They hugged the three and kissed them on the cheeks as they embraced, some rocking back and forth together with tears in their eyes. The group later ate lunch together at a feast of rice, kebabs and other traditional Middle Eastern dishes.
Iran detained the three Americans — Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27 — along the Iraqi border in late July and have accused them of entering from Iraqi territory and spying. Their relatives reject the accusation and say the three were hiking in Iraq's scenic and largely peaceful northern Kurdish region.
The mothers, who were wearing long black robes and holding bouquets of flowers during the meeting, arrived in Tehran on Wednesday to visit their children and try to secure the their release.
Iran granted the women visas to visit their children in what it said was an Islamic humanitarian gesture and the Americans appealed to them to release the three on the same grounds.
"We hope we're going home soon, maybe with our mothers," Josh Fattal said as the group was interviewed while seated together on a low-slung couch afterward.
Relatives have had little news on the three Americans since their arrest, and their mothers were eager to talk with them and gauge where their health stands after some 10 months in captivity in Iran's Evin prison.
Their lawyer Masoud Shafii said the six would stay together at least until evening, but it was not clear whether the three detainees would have to return to the prison for the night.
The mothers are hoping to meet with officials involved in the case, and ideally with top Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, the lawyer has said.
Sarah Shourd said it has been "terrible to be away from our families for this long."
"We've only received one phone call and it was five minutes long and that was amazing — we waited and prayed for that every day," she said. "This (the meeting) is something obviously we've been praying for and it makes a huge difference."
She said the their treatment by the Iranian authorities has been "decent" and loneliness has been the hardest part of her detention.
"Shane and Josh are in a room together but I'm alone and that's the most difficult thing for me," she said. She added that she's allowed to see Bauer and Fattal twice a day.
Hickey, the mother of Shane Bauer, said the parents are "very grateful to the Islamic Republic of Iran and the authorities for granting us a visa" to visit their children.
"We know that this is a great humanitarian act that they have given to us. Our reception was wonderful when we came into Iran," she said in comments aired on English-language Press TV.
Nora Shourd has said she is especially worried about the effect that near-solitary confinement may be having on her always social daughter. Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, have reported that Sarah was suffering a serious gynecological condition, while Bauer had a stomach ailment.
On Thursday, Iran's intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, defended the treatment of the Americans during their detention.
"We have treated the U.S. nationals according to our religious principles and on humanitarian grounds, even though these individuals committed an act of espionage by illegally crossing the border into Iran," Moslehi was quoted as saying by Press TV.
Although the Americans have not been publicly charged, Shafii has left open the possibility of a resolution outside of usual legal channels, saying "anything is possible."
The case could face complications from Iran's diplomatic showdown with the U.S. and its allies. Just before the mothers' arrival in Tehran, the United States said it had won support from other major powers for a new set of sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
The U.S., which has not had formal diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and its allies accuse Tehran of seeking nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
In recent years, a number of foreigners held by Iranian authorities on espionage and other security-related charges have been released following months of detention.
Last week, Iran freed French academic Clotilde Reiss, 24, after more than 10 months in jail. She was convicted of provoking unrest and spying during unrest that broke out after June's disputed presidential elections.
An Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in January 2009, convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison, was released on an appeal in May 2009.
Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Josh Fattal's brother, Alex, watched as footage of the reunion was shown.
"That image of my mom hugging him is unbelievable," he said. "We've waited a long time for an image like that."
Alex Fattal said he hopes Iran will continue its "humanitarian spirit" and let the three return home.
"We're always optimistic," he said. "We know that Shane, Josh and Sarah are innocent and we hope they'll be released. And what better time than to release them to their mothers right now?"