|The last direct contact families had with the men was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted to visit [AFP]
A deal to free two US citizens jailed in Iran as spies has been delayed because a judge, whose signature was reportedly needed, is on holiday, the men's lawyer has said.
The $1m "bail-for-freedom" deal has now been postponed, despite assurances last week from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29 years old, would be freed "in two days".
Their lawyer, Masoud Shafiei, said on Sunday he could not complete the paperwork to secure their liberty because a second judge who must sign the documents is on holiday until Tuesday.
One judge had already signed the papers on Saturday.
"I have no choice but to wait until Tuesday,'' Shafiei told the AP news agency.
There has already been confusion over the mens' release after an Iranian judiciary official denied reports of their imminent freedom, a day after Ahmadinejad told The Washington Post that he was "helping to arrange for their release".
A statement from Iran's judiciary on Wednesday said: "Information about this case will be provided by the judiciary. Any information supplied by individuals about this is not authoritative."
Convicted of espionage
The pair have been in jail since they were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their
friend Sarah Shourd.
She was released in September 2010, following mediation by Oman and a $500,000 bail payment.
Last month, the men were convicted of spying for the US and illegally entering Iran. The men were each sentenced to eight years in prison.
The men denied the charges and appealed the verdicts.
They say they were hiking in Iraq's scenic north and may have mistakenly crossed an unmarked border with Iran.
Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said on Saturday that the courts were willing to commute the men's sentences in the "near future'' as "a gesture of Islamic mercy", but did not say when the pair could be released.
However, Mohammed Javad Larijani, the head of Iran's Human Rights Council and a brother of the head of the country's powerful judiciary, said their "crime was not limited to illegal trespassing".
Bauer and Fattal were spying for the US and "we do not award the spies", Larijani told the Fars news agency on Sunday.
The mixed signals could reflect the bitter internal political feuds inside Iran Ahmadinejad and the country's ruling clerics, who control the courts.
Ahmadinejad and his allies are accused of trying to challenge the power of Iran's Islamic establishment.
Mediators from Iraq and Oman have asked Iran to free the two men on humanitarian grounds.
Oman dispatched at least two close advisors to Oman's sultan to Tehran on Wednesday, on board a plane reportedly designated to carry the pair out of Iran when a deal is reached.
Yousef bin Alawi, Oman's foreign minister, also discussed "issues of mutual interest'' with Iran's top diplomat twice this week, Iran's official news agency IRNA reported.
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 Gulf - the route for 40 per cent of the
world's oil tanker traffic.
Swiss officials also are also involved, as representatives of US interests in Iran, which has no diplomatic ties with Tehran.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Thursday that her country "continues to hope the Americans will be released", adding that Washington had received word through a number of sources that the two will be returned to their families.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit to Tehran.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, California.
Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from Philadelphia.
Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd while in prison.