Iran split over detained Americans

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran's start-and-stop announcements over the release of one of three detained Americans add up to a distinct message: President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies still have a fight on their hands within the ruling ranks.

The confusing signals over the fate of 31-year-old Sarah Shourd — whose planned Saturday release was personally backed by Ahmadinejad — underscore the wider backlash to efforts at expanding his powers and sway over internal policies and Iran's foreign affairs, analysts say.

It also points to one of the main fissures in Iran's conservative leadership: Ahmadinejad and his allies against the powerful judiciary overseen by Iran's supreme leader.

The judiciary head, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani — who took over shortly after the Americans were detained along the Iraqi border in July 2009 — apparently sees the detainees as his portfolio alone.

On Saturday, the judiciary's website quoted Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, as saying none of the detained Americans would be released "until the end of the legal procedure" and stressed that Shourd would not receive special treatment despite reported health concerns, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.

It's unclear whether the prosecutor was referring to a trial on possible spy charges — which could takes weeks or months — or some other kind of case review. It appears, however, any fast-track release is unlikely.

"By stopping the release of Sarah Shourd, the judiciary sent a strong message to the president that the buck stops with them," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert with the Middle East Economic and Political Analyst based in Israel.

"There are definite lines of division within Iran," said Behzad Sarmadi, a researcher on Iranian affairs at the Dubai School of Government. "It's easy to imagine a case like the American detainees being caught up in the factional disputes."