Iranian judicial authorities who reversed plans to release a detained American woman insisted Saturday that she and two friends will remain in custody until legal procedures have been exhausted.
The about-face was an embarrassment to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had personally intervened to get Sarah Shourd released as an act of clemency at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, according to state media. The judiciary blocked plans to let her go just hours before her planned release on Saturday.
The statement by Tehran's chief prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, did not specify whether the decision meant there would have to be a trial -- which could take weeks or months -- or another form of case review.
The move indicated Shourd had been caught in the middle of an internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and conservative rivals in the judiciary, which is under the direct control of Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Dowlatabadi underscored that point in a statement posted Saturday on the judiciary's website, insisting that any announcement about the Americans' release "would only come through the judiciary system."
The 31-year-old Shourd was detained with two other Americans, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, along the border between Iraq and Iran on July 31, 2009. They have been accused of illegally crossing the border and spying in a case that has deepened tension with the U.S., a relationship already strained over Washington's suspicions that Tehran is trying to build nuclear weapons -- something Iran denies.
Their families say they were hiking in Iraq's scenic north and that if they crossed the border, they did so unwittingly. Shourd has been held in solitary confinement, and her mother has said she's been denied treatment for serious health problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells.
Dowlatabadi said in a statement that her illness was not a factor in the decision.
The postponed release was not the first mixed signal in the case. Judicial officials have said several times that a trial would start soon, but few details have been made public, including whether the three Americans have even been formally charged.
Ahmadinejad and other officials have also suggested the three could be traded for Iranians they say are in custody in the U.S., indicating Iran might be holding them just as bargaining chips.
Then in May, Iran allowed the mothers of the three Americans to visit them in Iran, releasing them temporarily from Tehran's Evin prison for an emotional reunion at a hotel in the capital where they were treated to a lavish meal.
On Friday, state media reported that Ahmadinejad's intervention helped secure Shourd's planned release in part because of the "special viewpoint of the Islamic Republic of Iran on the dignity of women."
Reporters had even been invited to witness the release.
Later, the IRNA state news agency quoted the deputy chief of communication for the president's office, Mohammed Hassan Salilhimaram, as saying the release was postponed and details would be announced later.
Dowlatabadi struck a hard line on Saturday, saying none of the Americans will be released "until legal procedures are finished."
An official close to the prosecutor's office has said Dowlatabadi believes the release is unacceptable because Shourd should first stand before the court and then the amnesty will be granted. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Patrick Clawson, deputy director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the last-minute quarrels over Shroud's release highlight the internal fissures in Iran's power structure between Ahmadinejad and others such as the prosecutor who could see him overreaching his authority.
"There are all kinds of internal pressures," he said. "A case like this shows there are various factions at play."
Last year, the brother of Ahmadinejad's main conservative rival took over as head of the powerful judiciary, reducing the president's influence there.
The president's effort to have Shourd released might have been calculated to try to soften international criticism over a stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery that has been temporarily suspended during a review of her case by Iran's Supreme Court.
Ahmadinejad might also have wanted to make a gesture of goodwill before traveling later this month to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he has proposed having a televised debate with President Barack Obama on issues dividing the two nations.
In an apparent attempt to save face, an unidentified official in the president's office was quoted Saturday by the IRNA news agency as saying the postponement of Shourd's release was due to the Eid al-Fitr holiday, though that date was known in advance.
The American woman's lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said he remains optimistic.
"Since the case has turned into a political and diplomatic issue and many officials have talked about a release, she could be released soon," he said.
Shourd's name was not among the official list of prisoners freed at the end of Ramadan, further suggesting that prosecutors want the Americans to first face trial before any kind of pardon or clemency is considered.
Typically, inmates released during Ramadan have already been convicted.
Shourd's planned release had provided a long-sought sign of hope to the Americans' families, who have been pleading with Iranian officials to free their children since their arrest.
Now, they are once again left wondering what is going to happen.
"We don't know anything," said Samantha Topping, a New York publicist working with the families. She said the families knew only what they were hearing from media about a delayed release.