In a surprise move, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has promised to free two Americans seized by Iranian border guards and sentenced to eight years for espionage in “a couple of days … insh’allah (God willing).”  The two hikers and a third who was released before the trial claimed to have inadvertently crossed over the border; Iran believed them to be American spies.  Ann Curry asked the Iranian president about the case, which gave Ahmadinejad an opportunity to announce their imminent release — but he wants something in return:

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Ahmadinejad wants the US to free Iranians held in American prisons as a reciprocal gesture. I’m unaware of any specific cases, and I think we would have heard about a couple of Iranian nationals “hiking” into the US from Canada or Mexico by now. Ahmadinejad might be referring to Iranians captured in Afghanistan or Iraq, perhaps, but again, there hasn’t been a great deal of controversy (in the US, at least) over any particular case.

The State Department put out a statement later cautioning that they had not received any official word on the status of the two Americans, and the “God willing” part of Ahmadinejad’s statement is an opening through which anyone could drive a Mack truck. But as NBC reports in its companion piece, that may be more of Ahmadinejad’s reality than coyness:

After their conviction, Shafiei said that he had lodged an appeal and hoped they might be pardoned. “I hope because of the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr they might enjoy Islamic clemency,” he told Reuters on Aug. 28. Under Iranian law, espionage can carry the death penalty. Their trial took place behind closed doors and no evidence against the hikers has been made public.

The gap between Salehi’s words and the verdict indicated an increasing rift between Ahmadinejad’s administration and hardline judiciary. It is controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters. The affair has compounded tension between Tehran and Washington, which have had no diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent storming of the U.S. embassy by students.

We’ll soon see if the judiciary is as willing to make a “humanitarian” gesture as Ahmadinejad is in proposing it to American news agencies.