The release of hiker Sarah Shourd by Iran was seen as an attempt by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to curry favor with Washington on the eve of his trip to New York for meetings at the United Nations.
President Barack Obama publicly welcomed Shourd's release, as did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has intervened repeatedly through diplomatic channels on behalf of the three hikers since they were captured by Iranian border guards on July 31, 2009.
But the real story of what led to Shourd's capture and her release remains shrouded in mystery.
An Iranian Kurdish dissident told me a few months ago: "I come from the village in Iran where the three hikers were captured. I can tell you, even we don't know where the border is in that particular area."
Shourd and her fellow hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 28, were hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan when Iranian border guards captured them.
Iran continues to claim that they had illegally entered Iranian territory, but the hikers and their families deny that, saying that if they strayed into Iran it was by mistake.
Americans who travel in Iraq to the Iranian border know that it is largely a lawless region, beyond the control of the central government in Baghdad.
Many also know that the Iranian security forces regularly skirt the border zone for Americans they can kidnap and hold for ransom.
"Of course they were hostages!" says Washington Institute for Near East Policy research director Patrick Clawson, a respected expert on Iran.
"The Iranians want to get their own people out from the U.S. They want to trade," he told Newsmax. "Around 24 Iranians are now in U.S. jails on charges of high tech or arms export control violations."
The U.S. has stepped up prosecution of Iranians involved in export control violations over the past three years, using the National Export Enforcement Coordination Network (NEECN), an interagency group established in 2007.
"Iran is aggressively seeking nuclear capabilities that would drastically change the balance of power in the Middle East," says John T. Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, now a branch of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Fortunately, aggressive targeted actions — part of a sustained and calculated campaign to enforce export controls — have significantly impaired Iran's network from carrying out its charge," he added.
Clawson believes the Iranian government sees Shourd's release as a hostage-swap, and is expecting the U.S. to release some of the jailed Iranians in return.
Before the Iranian judiciary would agree to release Shourd, they demanded that her family pay $500,000 in bail.
Clawson called the "bail" demand a thinly disguised ransom payment. "The Iranian authorities are engaged in an unseemly process to extract the maximum amount of money they can from dissidents and foreigners they've held on dubious charges."
Iranian-Americans held in Iran in recent years on trumped up charges of spying on behalf of the United States have also been released after paying bail, then left the country. But they have paid using family assets in Iran.
"It's bail when you schedule a trial and you go back. When there is no trial, how can you call it anything but ransom?" said Pooya Dayanim, president of the Iranian Jewish Public Affairs Committee (IJPAC) in Los Angeles.
Dayanim was active in seeking the release of 13 Jews from Shiraz in the 1990s who were arrested on espionage charges, convicted in court, and jailed in Iran. Dayanim says their situation was completely different because of the judicial process involved.
U.S. officials have told reporters that neither the U.S. government nor the families of the hikers paid the money.
The Treasury Department forbids U.S. persons from transferring money to Iran, except in special cases that require a license from the Department of Treasury.
That did not happen in this case.
"The government of Oman posted bail for Sarah Shroud," said Treasury Department spokesman Marti Adams. "The Government of Oman is not subject to U.S. sanctions."
Sarah Shourd publicly thanked the government of Oman, as well as Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The Iranian president took personal credit for Shourd's release.
Ahmadinejad may be hoping that Shourd's release will open the door to a face-to-face meeting with Obama in New York later this week.
Ahmadinejad has been calling for direct talks with Obama since Obama took office last year, but insists that such talks should be conducted between "equals."
For his part, Obama opened the door to possible talks with Iran in a meeting with friendly columnists on Aug. 4. He said Iran and the United States had common interests to combat drug trafficking and the Taliban.
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