US ‘hopeful’ Iran will set two hikers free

TEHRAN, Iran — The proposed bail-for-freedom deal for two Americans jailed as spies is looking increasingly like a repeat of last year’s release of their companion: Quarrels between Iran’s judiciary and president, and then a private jet dispatched by the sultan of Oman for the captives’ first leg home.

But even as Washington expressed hope that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal could be nearing the end of more than two years in custody, the details of when — or even if — they will be freed remained clouded amid the complexities of internal Iranian politics and third-party diplomacy between Washington and Tehran, two longtime foes.

The first twist came from Iran’s powerful judiciary, which on Wednesday said it was still reviewing the bail provisions — and handing a potentially embarrassing rebuke to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after his prediction that the Americans could be released in a matter of days.

The statement by the hard-line judiciary appeared to be a message that only its officials — and not the president — can set the terms of any possible release. Ahmadinejad is locked in a bitter power struggle with Iran’s ruling clerics who control the courts.

It also could be a swipe at his hopes of timing the release of Bauer and Fattal with his expected arrival in New York next week for the U.N. General Assembly session.

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