Two Americans jailed in Iran as spies left Tehran today, closing a high-profile drama with Washington that brought more than two years of hope then heartbreak for the families as the Islamic Republic's hard-line rulers rejected international calls for their release.
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal left Iran just as darkness fell in the capital. The men were flying to Oman's capital, Muscat, although it was not clear how long they will stay in the Gulf state before heading home to America.
The case of Bauer and Fattal, who were convicted by an Iranian court of spying for the United States, has deepened strains in the already fraught relationship between Washington and Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was first to mention last week that the Americans could be released, is in the United States and is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly tomorrow.
The release came just minutes before US President Barack Obama addressed the UN General Assembly. There was no direct evidence that Iran timed the American's freedom to overshadow Obama's speech, but Iran has conducted international political stagecraft in the past.
Most famously, Iran waited until just moments after Ronald Reagan's presidential inauguration in January 1981 to free 52 American hostages held for 444 days at the former US Embassy after it was stormed by militants backing Iran's Islamic Revolution. The timing was seen as a way to embarrass ex-President Jimmy Carter for his backing of Iran's former monarch.
Associated Press reporters saw a convoy of vehicles with Swiss and Omani diplomats leaving Evin prison this afternoon with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal inside, heading to Tehran's Mehrabad airport.
Switzerland represents American interests in Iran because the US has no diplomatic relations with Tehran and the prisoners are expected to be flown to Oman now.
The two men, both 29, were driven out of the prison compound just minutes after their Iranian attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he has completed the paperwork for their release.
Police vehicles escorted the convoy of Swiss and Omani vehicles, carrying the two Americans to Mehrabad airport, which was once Tehran's main gateway to the world but is now used for domestic flights.
The airport is near the massive Azadi Square, which Iran uses to hold military parades but also was a temporary hub for protesters after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 and sentenced last month to eight years each in prison. A third American arrested with them, Sarah Shourd, was freed last year on bail.
Amnesty International called the release of the Americans a "long overdue step."
"Iranian authorities have finally seen sense" and have agreed to release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International deputy director for Middle East and North Africa. "They must now be allowed to leave Iran promptly to be reunited with their families."
The three Americans - friends from their days at the University of California at Berkeley - have maintained their innocence and denied the espionage charges against them.
Their families and the US government said they were just hiking in northern Iraq's scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked border with Iran.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran.
Oman has close ties with both Tehran and Washington and plays a strategic role in the region by sharing control with Iran of the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is the route for 40 % of the world's oil tanker traffic.