A combative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hedged on his promise to help free three young American hikers who claim they accidentally crossed into Iranian territory, and suggested in a series of questions of his own that the Americans may really have been spies.
In an exclusive interview with ABC "World News" anchor Diane Sawyer the Iranian president was reminded about his promise to help release Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd. "Are you still going to do your best to set them free?" Sawyer asked.
"Yes," Ahmadinejad curtly replied. "But I have got a question to you. How do you know they have accidentally crossed into Iran? How do you know they were looking for waterfalls and forests?"
Watch Diane Sawyer's interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tonight on "ABC World News with Diane Sawyer."
When Sawyer asked if there was evidence that the trio were anything but adventurous tourists, Ahmadinejad shot back, "Who has told you this? Are you a judge?"
Sawyer tried to reply, but Ahmadinejad cut her off. "Just let me finish. Have the intelligence agents told you this?"
Pressed on whether the Americans will go on trial, the Iranian president said, "I am not the judge to judge about it."
Despite Ahmadinejad's earlier statement that he would help in obtaining their release, Iran's foreign minister stated last week that Shourd, Bauer and Fattal will be put on trial, charged with espionage.
Sawyer interviewed Ahmadinejad in Copenhagen, Denmark, after he attended the United Nations conference on climate change. The interview will be broadcast tonight on "ABC World News with Diane Sawyer."
The Americans were arrested July 31 when they were found wandering on the Iranian side of the border after trekking through the mountainous region from a hotel in Iraq. They claimed that they were sightseers and didn't mean to cross the badly defined border in the area.
Bauer is a freelance journalist based in the Middle East and originally from Minnesota; Shourd is also based in the Middle East as a writer and teacher and is from California; and Fattal is an environmental worker from Oregon.
Shourd's mother, Nora Shourd, appealed last week to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to release her daughter and her two friends as a gesture in the days before Christmas.
Sawyer raised the issue of the hikers' families being in "enormous anguish" since they have been unable to visit them or speak to them. "Will you help arrange that?" Sawyer asked.
"We aren't happy about it either. We are unhappy about all prisoners. In America, there are 3.5 million prisoners. We are unhappy about all of them," Ahmadinejad said. Moments later he added, "I think they have corresponded......We should ask the judge. They might be able to do it."
The Iranian president was defiant when asked about growing frustration by the U.S., the United Nations and other countries over Iran's refusal to curtal its nuclear program or to allow international inspectors to visit its nuclear facilities to ensure it Iran isn't building a nuclear arsenal.
He shrugged off threats of tougher international sanctions.
"If you want to talk with us under fair conditions, we welcome it," Ahmadinejad said. "If you are saying you are going to impose sanctions, then go and do it. We don't welcome confrontation, but we don't surrender to bullying either."