Bush Calls on Iran to Release Detained U.S. Citizens

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007

President Bush lashed out at Iran yesterday for detaining American citizens and called for them to be freed "immediately and unconditionally." White House aides said the president broke his silence because of Tehran's decision to charge three of the four detainees.

Bush said the detainees had dedicated their lives to building bridges between Americans and Iranians, a goal that Tehran also claimed to share. "Their presence in Iran -- to visit their parents or to conduct humanitarian work -- poses no threat," he said in a statement. "Indeed, their activities are typical of the abiding ties that Iranian-Americans have with their land of origin."

Bush cited scholar Haleh Esfandiari of the Smithsonian's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh, Radio Farda correspondent Parnaz Azima, and California businessman Ali Shakeri.

Bush also said he was "disturbed" by Tehran's refusal to provide information on former FBI agent Robert A. Levinson, who disappeared after flying to Iran's Kish Island on March 8. Tehran has failed to respond to five messages about Levinson, U.S. officials say.

Bush pledged that Washington will continue unspecified diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Americans to win their freedom and bring them back to the United States.

The Bush administration has been reluctant to comment publicly about the quiet diplomatic efforts, in part because the main issue in the detentions appears to be a $75 million fund for democracy in Iran that was unveiled by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year. Iranian media that reflect the regime's views have suggested the detained Americans are engaged in helping to foment a "soft revolution."

National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the White House had decided to speak out after almost a month because the detentions have now dragged on and because Iran this week charged Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima with espionage and endangering Iran's national security.

"That represented an escalation on the part of the Iranians. And the president . . . felt that he ought to say something more this week," he told reporters.

Iran's detention of Americans further complicated an already tense series of issues between Washington and Tehran, including Iran's activities in Iraq and its nuclear program, Hadley said.

"It does not help the environment, it does not really advance the interests of the Iranian people, and it underscores the character of this regime, and it underscores the problem we have for those people who say, 'Well, why don't you talk to Iran?' It is a good reminder at how difficult this regime is, and of the kinds of policies it's pursuing," Hadley said.

The detentions are particularly awkward for their timing -- just as the United States opened the first public bilateral talks with Tehran after almost three decades of a diplomatic deep freeze, following the 1979-81 takeover of the U.S. Embassy, in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days.

In New York, former students of Esfandiari yesterday presented to Iran's U.N. mission a letter appealing for her immediate release. The letter is addressed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds the title of supreme leader of Iran, and to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Because of her own love for Iran, she wanted us to learn about the glories of Persian history and culture, including its proud Islamic heritage, the beauty of the Persian language, and the wonderful warm-heartedness of Iran's people," the students wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. "She taught us to care about a land and people very far from our own."

The actions taken by Iran's government strain that understanding, they wrote.

The former students, who took Persian literature and language classes from Esfandiari at Princeton University, called on the regime to "consider the goodwill" Esfandiari built for Iran and release her from Evin prison, where she has been detained since May 8, so she can return to the United States.

The State Department yesterday issued a warning to dual Iranian-American citizens that they may face difficulties leaving Iran, noting the detention and imprisonment of dual nationals in recent weeks.

"Some elements of the Iranian regime and the population remain hostile to the United States. As a result, American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran," the warning said. Dual nationals may be denied access to the U.S. Interests Section in Tehran, operated by the Swiss Embassy, on the grounds that they are considered to be solely Iranian citizens, the State Department said.

Americans who travel to or reside in Iran despite U.S. warnings are urged to register with the department, either online or in person at the Swiss Embassy.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company