Iran won't free American after all

BEIRUT — Iran's judiciary has blocked the planned release of one of three Americans imprisoned in Tehran, Iran, since last year, a news agency quoted a powerful official as saying late Friday.

Iran's semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency quoted Tehran's chief prosecutor Abbas Jaffar Dolatabadi as saying the "legal procedure" to secure the release of 32-year-old Sarah Shourd was not yet complete.

Shourd and two friends, Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer, were arrested July 31, 2009, after allegedly straying into Iranian territory during a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian officials had earlier said Shourd would be released this morning as a gesture of goodwill to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan at a palace in north Tehran that is used as a protocol office by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But Dolatabadi, Iran's second-most powerful judicial official, said the release would not take place. Though it was announced by Iranian officials, he blamed the media for jumping the gun.

"Since the legal procedure on the case of the mentioned arrested American national has not been completed, her release, which was reported by a number of websites, has been canceled," Dolatabadi was quoted as saying. "The published reports have not been confirmed by the judiciary. Clearly any decision regarding the mentioned accused will be made after the completion of the legal procedure."

No other explanation was offered. But the move suggests the kind of factional infighting within the political establishment that has bedeviled the Islamic Republic.

Officials of Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and Foreign Ministry, who had announced the planned release, are under the jurisdiction of Ahmadinejad. The president may be trying to burnish his image and international reputation ahead of his upcoming address at the annual opening session of the U.N. General Assembly gathering.

But the judiciary is under the control of Sadegh Larijani, the scion of a famous clerical family that has been locked in a political war with Ahmadinejad. Larijani's brother, Ali, is speaker of the Iranian parliament. He has opposed Ahmadinejad's populist economic policies as irresponsible.

Iranian Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi recently repeated long-standing allegations that the three had ties to Western espionage services.

The release was originally set to take place at the Esteghlal Hotel, a former Hilton, in north Tehran. But on Friday afternoon, officials sent reporters a text message saying the venue had been moved to the Hafeziyeh Building in Saadabad, a grand palace now used as a venue by Ahmadinejad to greet visiting foreign dignitaries.