The three Americans arrested after stray into Iranian territory could be portrayed as spies and used as bargaining chips in Tehran's tense relations with the United States, national security experts say.
But the picture emerging of the two men and woman indicates that they were anything but that.
ABC News has learned that the detainees are two writers and an environmental worker with ties to the Midwest and West Coast.
Shane Bauer is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and originally from Minnesota; Sarah Shourd is also based in the Middle East as a writer and teacher and is from California; and Joshua Fattal is an environmental worker from Oregon.
According to his Web site, ShaneBauer.net, Bauer is a fluent Arabic speaker and is a correspondent for New America Media. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor and The Nation. His site says he graduated with honors from the University of California Berkeley with a degree in Peace and Conflict Studies
A profile on BraveNewTraveler.com says that Shourd is a teacher-activist-writer who "loves fresh broccoli, Zapatistas and anyone who can change her mind."
On Saturday, Iran state TV confirmed that it had detained the three Americans who crossed the border from northern Iraq, saying that they ignored warnings from Iranian guards.
Fourth Friend Stayed Behind at Hotel
"The Iranians said they have arrested them because they entered their land without legal permission," said Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish regional government's envoy to Washington.
And national security experts say Iran will not make it easy for the three to secure their freedom.
"I think there's a decent chance that Iran will portray these three as spies. And leave it up to the United States or to these three individuals to prove they are innocent," said Michael O'Hanlan, a national security expert with the Brookings Institution. "And given what we know about the CIA's interest in this part of the world, some people will believe Iran."
The Americans left a hotel in the northern Iraq city of Suleimaniya on Thursday for a hike in the mountains along the Iran-Iraq border. But a fourth American stayed behind.
Shon Meckfessel, an English teacher from Seattle who is now at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, received a phone call Friday from his friends saying "we're surrounded."
Meckfessel's grandmother, Irene Meckfessel, told The Associated Press that it was only a twist of fate that saved her grandson from the ill-fated hiking trip.
The American linguistics student caught a cold and apparently didn't feel well enough to join the others in the outdoor excursion, she said.
Irene Meckfessel said her grandson had most recently studied at the University of Washington in Seattle, the AP reported.
"He's very much interested in people and languages and he's working on a Ph.D. in linguistics," she said.
Upon hearing the news of his safety, Nour Chida, a friend of Meckfessel's, said, "I'm very, very happy to hear that. I'm very worried about his friends."
For the families of the hikers, it has been a bewildering weekend.
"Currently we are only concerned about the wellbeing of Joshua and the other two people," Fattal's father wrote in a statement to ABC News. "We hope they come home as soon as possible."
Detention Comes at Time of Increased Conflict Between U.S. and Iran
Their detention comes at a time when the Iranian government is accusing the U.S. of fomenting unrest in Iranian Kurdistan, just across the border from northern Iraq. It also thinks the U.S. had a hand in instigating protests in Iran that followed its disputed June presidential election.
The incident is also prompting comparisons to the two American journalists captured by North Korea earlier this year after straying across the border from China.
The early signs from Tehran are not encouraging. Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, were scheduled to meet with the Iranian foreign ministry about the Americans, but the meeting was postponed until Monday.
The Associated Press contributed to the report.