TEHRAN, Iran — In just a few dizzying hours, American Sarah Shourd exchanged a cell in Tehran's Evin Prison for a private jet crossing the Persian Gulf on Tuesday, after an apparent diplomatic deal to cover a $500,000 bail and secure a release that seemed in jeopardy from the start.
Shourd was met by her mother and U.S. diplomats at a royal airfield in the capital of Oman, which U.S. officials say played a critical role in organizing the bail payment and assuring it did not violate American economic sanctions on Iran.
Shourd stepped off the private Omani jet and into the arms of her mother in their first embrace since a brief visit in May overseen by Iranian authorities — and her first day of freedom in more than 13 months. Shourd smiled broadly as they strolled arm-in-arm through the heat of the late summer night along the Gulf of Oman.
"I'm grateful and I'm very humbled by this moment," she said before boarding the plane in Tehran for the two-hour flight to Oman.
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The whirlwind departure of the 32-year-old Shourd brought little change for two other Americans — her fiance, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal — who remained behind bars while authorities moved toward possible trials on spy charges that could bring up to 10 years in prison if they are convicted.
The three were detained along the Iraq border in July 2009. Their families say they were innocent hikers in the scenic mountains of Iraq's Kurdish region and that if they did stray across the border into Iran, they did so unwittingly.
"All of our families are relieved and overjoyed that Sarah has at last been released, but we're also heartbroken that Shane and Josh are still being denied their freedom for no just cause.... They deserve to come home, too," said a statement by the three families.
Iran, however, has shown no hints of clemency for the two 28-year-old men. Indictments on espionage-related charges have been filed, and Tehran's chief prosecutor has suggested the cases could soon move into the courts, with Shourd tried in absentia.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he welcomed Shourd's release "and I appreciate the flexibility of Iranian government."
"At the same time, as secretary- general of the United Nations, I would sincerely hope that Iranian government will again very favorably consider releasing the remaining two American hikers so that they could join their families as soon as possible," he said in an interview in New York.
Any other scenario could bring more unwanted attention to the growing rivalries inside Iran's Islamic leadership.