Iraq frees two Iranians arrested by U.S. forces

Reporting from Baghdad and Tehran

Two Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq were released Friday, a day after Iran allowed three young Americans detained in the Islamic Republic since July to meet with their mothers.

Iraqi officials handed the detainees to the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Iran’s state-owned English-language Press TV reported on its website. Embassy spokesman Amir Arshadi said the men had left the country and arrived in Iran.

The moves are the latest hints of behind-the-scenes deal-making between Iran and the West over the fate of detainees.

Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, told Iranian state radio that the U.S. military arrested Ahmad Barazandeh and Ali Abdollahi “on the basis of groundless accusations,” and for traveling without passports.

Kazemi-Qomi said both Iranians were pilgrims who had traveled to Iraq to visit Shiite Muslim holy sites. Press TV said they were arrested in Najaf and Samarra, both home to important Shiite shrines. Arshadi said there was no deal that led to their release.

“There were no charges against either of them,” Arshadi said.

A U.S. military spokesman said two men by those names were captured by American forces in 2004 and in 2007, and handed over to Iraqi authorities last year.

On Thursday, Iranian officials allowed Shane Bauer, Joshua Fattal and Sarah Shourd, three Americans arrested last year, to meet with their mothers. The three allegedly crossed illegally into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan and are being held in Tehran’s Evin Prison. They were to spend Friday with their mothers as well, said their lawyer, Masoud Shafii.

Their supporters describe the three Americans as innocent hikers. But Iranian officials have accused them of espionage.

Tehran has complained that the United States is illegally holding Iranian nationals, including several purported to be defectors with information about Iran’s nuclear program, the focal point of a years-long confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the West.

On Friday, the mothers of Shourd, Fattal and Bauer were taken to meet the families of Iranians arrested by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil three years ago, the semiofficial, hard-line Fars News Agency reported. The U.S. has described the Iranians as spies, but Tehran insists they are diplomats attached to an office that issued visas to Iraqis traveling to Iran.

Late Friday, the mothers left Tehran after being denied requests to meet officials and appeal for their children’s freedom, Shafii said.

Though Iranian and Western officials strenuously deny holding each other’s nationals as bargaining chips, independent analysts speculate that’s just what they are doing.

This week Tehran allowed jailed French researcher Clotilde Reiss to go home just days after France, one of the leading proponents of increasing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, rejected a U.S. extradition request for an alleged Iranian arms smuggler.

Within days of Reiss’ arrival in Paris, the French Interior Ministry paroled the assassin of a former Iranian prime minister and allowed him to head home to Iran after 19 years in custody.

“The close association of these events strongly implies that France engaged in an unwise quid pro quo with Iran,” said an analysis posted online by the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington think tank.

Times staff writer Sly reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.