Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, are seen at a Foreign Ministry news conference in Tehran on Sept. 10, 2013. (European Pressphoto Agency)

Iran’s foreign minister suggested Wednesday that a Washington Post reporter facing charges of espionage in Iran may have been asked to gather information by someone working for the U.S. government.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at New York University, said an “overzealous low-level operative” may have tried to “take advantage” of Jason Rezaian, The Post’s Tehran bureau chief who has been imprisoned in Iran for more than nine months. Although Zarif provided no more specifics on the identity of an alleged operative, he said people seeking U.S. visas for themselves or relatives are vulnerable.

“The fact is, there are people who take advantage of the needs of some people who try to get a visa to come to the United States, or for their wives to come to the United States, and make demands that are illegal and dangerous and damaging to the professionalism of a journalist,” he said.

Rezaian, 39, is a dual U.S-Iranian citizen who was raised in California. His wife of two years, Yeganeh Salehi, is an Iranian citizen. She was arrested with him last July and has been released on bail until trial.

Jason Rezaian’s journey has taken him from a childhood in San Francisco to his father’s native Iran. At 37, he became the Washington Post correspondent in Tehran. In July 2014, he was thrown into Iran’s Evin Prison, where he remains. This is his story. (This video has been updated to reflect recent developments in the Rezaian case.) (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Zarif was asked about Rezaian in an appearance at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was answering questions posed by David Ignatius of The Post.

When Ignatius asked whether the impending conclusion of nuclear talks with Iran might be a good time for Iran to release Rezaian in the spirit of the moment, Zarif said that “my friend Jason” is accused of a serious crime and expressed hope that he would be cleared in court.

Rezaian faces four counts of endangering Iran’s national security, including one espionage charge, according to a lawyer who agreed to take his case after several other attorneys declined.

State Department negotiators trying to finalize a nuclear agreement with Iran have frequently brought up Rezaian’s case and those of other Americans imprisoned there. U.S. officials and senior editors at The Post have described the case against Rezaian as ludicrous.

In response to a question about Zarif’s remarks Wednesday, a State Department official said, “We haven’t seen his exact comments and are not sure what he was referring to specifically, but any assertion that Jason was other than a hard-working journalist trying to tell the story of Iran and the Iranian people to the world is absurd.”

Zarif compared Rezaian’s captivity to that of Iranians who are jailed in foreign countries while awaiting extradition to the United States on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. One Iranian in that situation died in a Philippine prison, he said.

“The Washington Post has a much better publicity campaign about Jason than we have about people lingering in prisons in Southeast Asia who committed no crime,” he said.

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