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Iran Charges 3 Iranian-Americans With Spying

Iran announced that three Iranian-Americans have been formally charged with endangering national security and espionage. Cache Seel has details from our Middle East bureau in Cairo.

The two academics and one journalist are citizens of both the United States and Iran. Iran does not recognize dual nationality and the three will be tried as Iranian citizens.

Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old grandmother, is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. She was arrested on May 8. She has been prevented from leaving Iran since December. She traveled to the country frequently to visit her ailing mother, who is over 90 years old.

Parnaz Azima, a journalist with the U.S.-funded Radio Farda, was also in Iran to visit a sick relative. She is not being detained, but her passport was confiscated and she has been barred from leaving Iran since January.

The announcement of formal charges was the first admission by the Iranian government that they were holding Kian Tajbaksh. Tajbaksh works for the George Soros' Open Society Institute and is believed to have been held since May 11.

The announcement of formal charges comes only one day after American and Iranian officials held rare, high-level talks in Baghdad to discuss the security situation in Iraq. The United States and Iran severed diplomatic relations following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Mark Fitzpatrick is an Iranian analyst with the London based International Institute for Strategic Studies. He says the charges could be connected to the recent talks. "I think it's related in that the government in Tehran wants to keep an absolute monopoly on dealing with the United States," he said.

There has been a good deal of speculation over the possible motives behind the detentions, but Fitzpatrick says it is likely the arrests are just what the intelligence ministry says they are. "There's a great deal of repression and expansion of the state security system's grip on society right now. So it's partly in wanting to control the contacts with the West but it also it reflects a sense of concern, actually paranoia, that the United States is seeking to foment a velvet revolution in Iran so the government is responding by cracking down on any signs of social discontent or evidence, any perceived evidence, no matter how trumped up of Americans seeking to promote … pluralistic society," he said.

Some analysts believe that a lack of evidence will lead to the quick release of the detainees. However, Fitzpatrick is doubtful about that, given the high profile of the case and the nature of the charges. "These sound very serious, the Iranian judicial system has imposed very serious penalties for less drastic crimes. Iran has executed people without any charges. The judicial system there is not one that always reflects a logical progression from evidence, to charges, to punishment. At any stage along the way, matters can be changed or created out of thin air. I think it is possible that the individuals unfortunately held by Iran could be released, but I'm not counting on it, I fear for them," he said.

At least one of the detainees, Haleh Esfandiari, is being held at Evin Prison where human rights groups say a Canadian-Iranian photographer was beaten to death in 2003. An Iranian inquiry concluded the death was due to injuries sustained in a fall.

At the U.S. State Department, deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the United States had not been formally notified of the charges against the three. But he said all three are individuals with family ties to Iran who had been doing independent research for many years. Casey said they posed no threat to the Iranian government, and the U.S. government believes they should be released as soon as possible.

In addition to the three Iranian Americans who have been charged with espionage, the United States has also been seeking information about the fate of a former FBI agent who disappeared in March from an Iranian resort on Kish Island.