TEHRAN, Iran — Iran will allow the mothers of three Americans arrested along the Iraqi border in July to visit them in a Tehran prison, the foreign minister announced Monday, saying the decision was made on humanitarian grounds.
The case of the three Americans, held for more than nine months, has exacerbated tensions between the two countries that were already high due to the standoff over Iran’s accelerating nuclear program and criticism of its crackdown on postelection protesters.
Raising further concern, Swiss diplomats who were allowed to visit the Americans on April 22 reported that two of them were in poor health, according to their families.
Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said on state television late Monday that the Iranian government has ordered the visas to be issued on humanitarian grounds.
Iran has accused Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal of illegal border crossing, espionage and having links to U.S. intelligence, and has said they would be brought to trial. Their families and the U.S. government have denied the spying accusations and called for their release.
The families of the three graduates of the University of California at Berkeley say they were hiking in the scenic Kurdistan region of northern Iraq and that if they did cross the border with Iran they did so unintentionally.
Mottaki said Iran made a decision to grant visas to the mothers before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in New York earlier this month.
The mothers flew to New York in hopes of meeting Ahmadinejad to make a personal appeal for their children’s release, but their request to see him wasn’t granted.
“Before the New York meeting, we decided on humanitarian grounds that these three mothers can visit their children,” Mottaki said on a live television show. “We gave orders to our mission in the U.S. (to issue visas). They can refer to our mission, get it (visas) and come.”
He was apparently referring to the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, which represents Iranian diplomatic interests in the U.S. in the absence of an official relationship between the two countries.
The three mothers said Monday they were excited to hear the news but did not want to count on making the trip until they get official word that they could pick up the visas — which has yet to come.
“Yes we are excited, yes we are delighted at movement, delighted to think we will travel there,” said Laura Fattal of suburban Philadelphia, the mother of Josh Fattal. “But we haven’t got the word yet ourselves to come pick up those visas. We’re in a truly holding our breath situation. We will leave the minute we have those visas.”
Shane Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey of rural Pine City, Minnesota, said family members “have heard these rumblings before so we are being cautious with our optimism.” But, she said, “I have to say I’m more hopeful than I’ve ever been.”