“Oprah’s a great listener,” gushed the mother of one of the American hikers detained by Iran last year.
It was a moment of levity in a hard time. “We’re thrilled that Sarah is out, but we’ve got two guys still in prison,” Ms. Fattal said in a phone interview Wednesday. “Cindy [Hickey, Mr. Bauer’s mother] and I are out of our minds.”
Iran has claimed that the three American hikers entered Iran illegally and has accused them of espionage, a charge their families deny. Ms. Shourd was released Sept. 14, but Bauer and Mr. Fattal remain in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
The three mothers of the American hikers also appeared on the Oprah show, and their appearance coincides with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speech Thursday in front of the United Nations General Assembly (his second appearance at the UN this week).
Before his arrival in New York, the mothers made public pleas for the Iranian leader to bring their children with him to New York or to meet with them while he is in town – requests they also made ahead Mr. Ahmadinejad’s visit to the UN a year ago. Last year, those pleas went unanswered. With the release of Shourd last week, Ahmadinejad fulfilled part of their wishes.
For the past year, Ms. Fattal, Ms. Hickey, and Shourd’s mother, Nora, have been working daily for the hikers’ release. It has become their sole occupation, they say. With her return, Shourd has become the newest member of their team.
“I stand before you today only one-third free,” Shourd said Sunday in her first public appearance in the United States. “That was the last thing that Josh said to me before I walked through the prison doors. Josh and Shane felt one-third free at that moment, and so did I.”
But despite intervening on Shourd’s behalf, Ahmadinejad now insists that the release of the two remaining hikers is out of his hands.
“It depends on the judge,” he said, speaking through an interpreter during an interview with CNN’s Larry King on Wednesday. “I have no influence over it. But I have suggested for the lady, in her case, that it be regarded with clemency, mercy, more kindness, and compassion, to allow her to return to her family.”
This is not the first time that the release of a detainee has coincided with Ahmadinejad’s travels to the US. Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American academic, was detained in Iran for eight months in 2007 while on a trip to visit her elderly mother. She was released in late August of that year, just a month before Ahmadinejad was due in New York to attend meetings of the UN General Assembly.
Dr. Esfandiari, now the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, says the timing of Shourd’s release, like her own, was a very calculated decision.
“Everyone is focusing on the hikers, and no one is focusing on what is happening internally in Iran,” she says, referring to the continued detention of Iranian protesters, activists, and opposition leaders.
Media interest in the hikers’ release could prod things along, Esfandiari also says.
“I get the impression that there’s enough pressure on Ahmadinejad on this trip,” she says. “He’ll go back to Iran and report to the supreme leader that it’s becoming embarrassing for Iran and that they should try to free them.”