The United States Tuesday dismissed as absurd charges by Iran that three Iranian-Americans visiting that country were involved in spying. The charges were announced only a day after U.S. and Iranian diplomats held a rare face-to-face meeting in Baghdad. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The State Department says none of the three Iranian-Americans directly worked for the United States government or was engaged in U.S. government business on their visits to Iran, and that the spy charges by Tehran authorities are absurd.
The comments followed an announcement from Iranian judicial authorities that the three dual citizens, who had been prevented from leaving the country after routine visits, are now accused of espionage.
The most prominent of the three is academic Haleh director of the Middle East program of Washington's Woodrow Wilson center for scholars.
She had been barred from leaving Iran since last December after visiting her ailing mother and has been held since earlier this month at Tehran's Evin prison, which has been linked in the past to human rights abuses.
Also reported to be in custody is Kian Tajbaksh, a social scientist and urban planer for the New York-based Open Society Institute, which says he was jailed about two weeks ago.
The third Iranian-American, journalist Parnaz Azima of the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, has not been jailed. But her passport was confiscated and she has been barred from leaving Iran since January after also going to there for a family visit.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey said the United States has not been officially notified of the espionage charges and that Iran has not responded to requests for consular access to the three by the Swiss government, which looks after U.S. interests in Tehran.
Casey insisted the charges against them are without substance.
"These are individuals who are private citizens," he said. "They are not party to any of the policy disputes between the government of the United States and the government of Iran. It's absolutely absurd to think that they in any way, shape or form pose a threat to the Iranian regime. And we continue to urge the Iranian government to let them go, to let them go back to visiting their families, to come back home to be with their families here, and to continue with the very basic people-to-people kind of work that they've been pursuing in Iran for many years."
In addition to the three Iranian-Americans now accused of spying, the United States has been seeking information about the fate of a former U.S. FBI agent, , who went missing after arriving in March at Iran's Kish Island resort in the Persian Gulf.
Iran has denied, in messages conveyed by the Swiss, any knowledge of Levinson's whereabouts but U.S. officials are skeptical, pointing to press reports that he may have been detained shortly after his arrival in Iran.
There have been news accounts Iran may intend to use the U.S. citizens it holds as bargaining chips for the release of five Iranians detained in northern Iraq since January for alleged involvement in attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces.
However, Spokesman Casey said he is unaware of any linkage between the five Iranians the United States says were lawfully detained in Iraq and the cases of the three dual citizens facing spy charges.
Casey said the issue was not raised by either side Monday in U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's Baghdad meeting Monday with Iranian diplomats. He said only Iran can explain why it is engaged in a "pattern of harassment" against private American citizens.
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979 and interaction between the two governments has been rare.
Monday's talks in Iraq were limited to Iraqi security issues. Though no substantive advances were announced, the two sides were said to have agreed on the general need for a stable and peaceful Iraq.