Iranian Hikers' Release Is Delayed Again

Judge not appearing in court again may indicate Iranian politics playing role.

Sept. 20, 2011— -- The release of the two U.S. hikers who have been jailed in an Iranian prison for over two years has been delayed again after the judge who must sign their release order didn't appear in court.

Masoud Shafii, the lawyer representing jailed Americans Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, arrived at court Tuesday -- the day the final judge needed to sign their release order was supposed to return from vacation -- but was told that the judge was not in.

"I went to the court as I was told [by the judiciary], but the judge whose signature we needed is not back to work yet … They said they will contact me as soon as the judge comes back to work," Shafii told ABC News.

The continued delay of the Americans' release may be a sign of a growing rift between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts.

Ahmadinejad announced plans to release Bauer and Fattal on $500,000 bail each last week, just ahead of his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly. Though one judge signed the paperwork Saturday, Ahmadinejad left for his meeting in New York on Monday with the two American still behind bars.

Sources in Iran told ABC News that they believe that it is unlikely Bauer and Fattal will be released while the Iranian president is in New York. The delay may be a possible attempt by Ahmadinejad's political rivals to prevent him from gaining traction on the world stage.

Bauer and Fattal's release has been beset by mixed signals since Ahmadinejad indicated a fast-track release last week. Iran's judiciary, which is directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – swiftly reminded the public that only the courts have the power to control the release's timing.

The news of the delay also came a day after a group of four U.S. Christian and Muslim leaders who had travelled to Iran hoping to return with the two Americans said that their release is imminent. The envoys had even gone as far as to book plane tickets for the pair.

The delegation of four said after an hour-plus meeting on Saturday with Ahmadinejad, along with other senior government officials, that the release of the 29-year-old Americans would happen soon.

"We have been promised that our visit was productive and helped accelerate the [pending] release of the hikers," Nihad Awad, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Monday.

The envoys added that the Iranian government is anticipating reciprocation by the U.S. on cases of Iranian nationals jailed in America.

Episcopal Bishop of Washington John Chane told the Associated Press that although no quid-pro-quo arrangements were officially made during the meeting, "they are looking for some reciprocity here."

The two men were convicted last month for spying and illegally entering Iran and were both sentenced to eight years in prison. They appealed the verdicts and an Iranian court set bail of $500,000 each, opening the way for their release.

Bauer, a freelance journalist, and Fattal, and environmental activist, have denied the charges, saying they were just hiking in Iraq's scenic north, and may have accidentally crossed an unmarked border with Iran.

A third American, Sarah Shourd, was detained with them, but she was released last September with mediation by Oman after her $500,000 bail was paid. The payment of bail in the cases must be arranged through third parties, like Oman, due to United States' economic sanctions on Iran.

The Associated Press contributed to this report