By Kay Armin Serjoie, Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
TEHRAN -- Three Americans who were accused of espionage after entering Iran illegally during a hiking trip will be put on trial, Iran's foreign minister said Monday, raising the stakes in a case likely to exacerbate tensions with the United States.
The announcement comes after Iran last week demanded the release of 11 Iranians who it says are being held by the United States -- a possible signal that Tehran wants to use the Americans as bargaining chips. The development also coincides with an international stalemate over Tehran's nuclear program. The Obama administration has warned Iran that it faces tougher sanctions over its uranium-enrichment activities unless it accepts a proposed deal by Dec. 31.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not say when the trial would begin or specify the charges, saying only that the Americans had "entered Iran illegally, with suspicious objectives."
Shane Michael Bauer, 27, Sarah Emily Shourd, 31, and Joshua Felix Fattal, 27, were arrested in July by Iranian border guards while hiking in the mountainous Kurdish region between Iraq and Iran. Their families say they crossed the border accidentally, but a top Iranian prosecutor last month accused the three of spying.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the espionage charges were "totally unfounded." She told reporters Monday that the three Americans "have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government" and appealed to Iran's leadership "to free them as soon as possible."
Iranian officials recently began calling attention to 11 Iranians who they say are being held in U.S. prisons. Iran accuses the United States of kidnapping a nuclear scientist, a top military official and a businessman while they were traveling abroad.
Iranian officials are particularly upset about the case of Amir Hossein Ardebili, who pleaded guilty last year to plotting to ship U.S. military technology to Iran, including advanced missile guidance and fighter plane components.
Ardebili was arrested in a sting operation in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 2007 after meeting with U.S. agents posing as Philadelphia-based arms dealers, and he was extradited to the United States in January 2008, according to court documents released earlier this month. The arrest was part of a larger operation in which American, Dutch and Belgian citizens were recently convicted in U.S. courts for selling prohibited technology to Iran.
"We urgently call on the U.S. administration to put an end to such illogical behavior and immediately and unconditionally release Ardebili along with other Iranian inmates in order to alleviate concerns of their families," Mottaki said last week.
Ardebili was sentenced Monday in Delaware to five years in federal prison, but will probably be released in about three years, considering his time already spent in U.S. custody, said Assistant U.S. Attorney David L. Hall, who prosecuted the case. Hall dismissed the idea that Ardebili could be traded for anyone held by Iran, saying he is a "sentenced U.S. prisoner" who committed "very serious" offenses.
Rejecting Iranian suggestions that Ardebili was illegally detained and flown to the United States, Hall said he was "accorded due process rights every step of the way," including in Georgia, where he was held by local authorities and had two judicial appeals before being extradited.
Iran also is concerned about Shahram Amiri, a nuclear physicist who disappeared in June during a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Some media reports have said Amiri was seeking asylum abroad, but the Iranian Foreign Ministry charged that Saudi authorities handed him over to the United States and that now "he is among 11 jailed Iranians in America."
In an interview with NBC in September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that the three Americans could be released if the United States also freed Iranians who are "in U.S. prisons right now with no good reason."
A Tehran-based nongovernmental organization is preparing to file a complaint against the United States accusing it of violating the rights of Iranian detainees, including several arrested in arms-trafficking stings, Iranian news media reported last week.
Erdbrink reported from Dubai, Branigin from Washington.