Amid increasing concern about the fate of three American citizens being held by the Iranian government, the U.S. and its allies have stepped up efforts to secure their release.
The situation surrounding the hikers has taken an ominous turn, with senior Iranian officials suggesting that the three may be linked to the recent political unrest in Iran following June's disputed presidential election.
Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27, were picked up by Iranian border guards after the three strayed into Iran in late July while hiking in the mountains of neighboring Iraq.
The hikers, University of California, Berkley graduates on an extended trip to the Middle East, have not had a consular visit from Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Iran. American officials are not even sure where they are being held.
It took over a week for the White House to obtain official confirmation that Iran is detaining the three hikers.
National Security Adviser James Jones, speaking on NBC's Meet the Press, said, "We have sent strong messages that we would like these three young people released as soon as possible."
If the three hikers had strayed into almost any country other than Iran, the case probably wouldn't have turned into a high-profile incident with international implications.
The timing was ill-fated, too. Following the disputed June 12 presidential election, Iran is facing arguably its greatest domestic turmoil since the 1979 revolution.
Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, says the three Americans could be used as pawns.
"This is part of the pattern that they have done in the past. When they have a crisis at home they try to create kind of a crisis that would detract from the subject they're uncomfortable with," Milani says.
The Iranian government claims the violence and widespread post-election protests have been fomented by outside forces, especially the U.S. and Britain. And some Iranian officials have asked why American hikers chose this particular time to wander into Iran.
"If push comes to shove, if they feel truly cornered, I wouldn't be surprised if they find a way of connecting these three people to this ongoing conspiracy," Milani says.
Milani says the Iranians are aware of the lengths to which the U.S. will go to secure the release of its citizens — illustrated last week when former President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea to help in the release of two American journalists.
Gary Sick, an Iran scholar with Columbia University, says an intermediary like Iraq may help resolve the situation.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has been in contact with Iranian officials to request that the three American hikers be released. Zebari said he hoped for an answer in the coming days.
Sick says Iran wants to maintain its good relations with ethnic Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, and with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
"My guess is that any concessions that are made are probably going to be done through the Iraqis, not as a direct act by the United States," Sick says. "And it's not clear to me what that would be; it could be perhaps considering releasing some Iranians that are in jail in Iraq."