Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday rejected as totally unfounded spy charges against three Americans held in Iran since June after they apparently strayed into Iranian territory while hiking in northern Iraq.
The announcement in Tehran by Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that the three Americans will stand trial on spy charges that could bring the death penalty triggered a strong reaction from Secretary Clinton, who said the charge is unfounded and baseless. "The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government. In fact, they were out hiking, and, unfortunately, apparently, allegedly walked across an unmarked boundary. We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and release them as soon as possible."
Iranian authorities said last month spy charges were pending against the Americans – Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and John Fattal, but the comments from the Iranian Foreign Minister were the first indication that a trial might be imminent.
Despite the insistence of the families of the three that they entered Iran from the Kurdish region of northern Iraq inadvertently, Mottaki said they entered Iran with suspicious aims, and that authorities would try them and impose what he termed relevant sentences.
The case comes at a time of high tensions between Iran, the United States and other world powers over Tehran's nuclear program, which U.S. and European officials believe has a secret weapons component.
Clinton, who spoke at a joint press event with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, declined comment, citing intelligence considerations, on press reports Monday that U.N. and western officials have secret documents suggesting Iran may be testing components of a nuclear bomb trigger.
But the Secretary said there are ample other grounds for concern about Iran's nuclear intentions, including the recent disclosure of a secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom, its failure to follow through on a tentative deal to export much of its enriched uranium stockpile, and announcements it plans to build 10 or more new enrichment plants.
She said results of big-power efforts to engage Iran on the issue have been disappointing.
"We have offered the opportunity to engage in meaningful, serious discussions with our Iranian counterparts. We have joined fully in the P5+1 process. We've been at the table, but I don't think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of positive response from the Iranians," said the secretary.
Clinton said she discussed the Iranian nuclear program at some length with her Spanish counterpart, whose government assumes the presidency of the European Union in January.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana of Spain has been a key mediator in efforts by the P5+1 - the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany - to engage with Iran on the nuclear issue.
The major powers have offered Iran incentives to prove its assertions that its nuclear program is peaceful, and have threatened more sanctions if it does not cooperate. Clinton said she believes that additional pressure on Tehran is certainly going to be called for.
Later, in an address on U.S. human rights policy at Washington's Georgetown University, Clinton said the Obama administration has offered negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue while expressing solidarity with those in Iran struggling for democratic change.