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Iran Announces Charges Against Three U.S.-Iranian Nationals

Haleh Esfandiari (file photo) ( May 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran has confirmed that charges have been filed alleging that three U.S.-Iranian citizens, including two scholars and a journalist who works for the U.S. government-funded Radio Farda, acted against Iran's national security.

Iran's announcement today that it has charged all three U.S.-Iranians comes amid heightened tensions with Washington.

It also comes one day after the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors met for the most senior bilateral talks between those two countries since they broke off formal diplomatic relations following the 1979 Islamic revolution and storming of the U.S. Embassy.

Iran's judiciary spokesman, Ali Reza Jamshidi, says social science scholar Kian Tajbakhsh is being held in prison on the charges of "acting against the national security of the country through propaganda and espionage for foreigners."

Tajbakhsh is a 45-year-old urban-planning specialist who has taught in the United States and Iran. He also has worked for the World Bank and for the Open Society Institute of U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros -- a nongovernmental group that works to promote democracy around the world.

Tehran has accused the Open Society Institute of seeking a nonviolent revolution in Iran.

Jamshidi says Iran's Interior Ministry has also filed similar charges against scholar Haleh Esfandiari, the 67-year-old director of the Middle East program of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center.

Jamshidi says Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for U.S.-funded Radio Farda (the Persian-language broadcast venture between RFE/RL and Voice of America), has been charged with acting against the Iranian state.

Azima's lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, rejected the charges in an interview with Radio Farda today.

"I certainly deny what the respected spokesman of [Iran's] Judiciary has claimed about my client," Aghasi said. "Conducting activities against national security is not what was brought up against my client. The only thing Ms.Azima has been accused of is antiestablishment propaganda, and it should be noted that this is only an allegation. This means the only act my client has performed that has been interpreted as crime is her cooperation with Radio Farda and making reports regarding Iranian issues on this radio. Filing these reports is not regarded as taking action. It is regarded as propaganda and not necessarily even antiestablishment propaganda. And we will for sure respond to this charge in a court of law."

Months Of Questioning

Esfandiari has worked for years at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, bringing prominent Iranians to Washington to talk about the political situation in Iran -- some of whom have subsequently been detained and questioned upon their return to Iran.

Esfandiari is being held at Iran's notorious Evin Prison. She initially went to Tehran in late 2006 to visit her ailing 93-year-old mother, a trip that her husband says she has made roughly twice a year for many years.

But the Woodrow Wilson Center says Esfandiari has been trapped in Iran since December, when three masked men with knives stole her luggage and passport as she was going to the airport to leave the country.

In the months after that robbery, as Esfandiari sought a new passport, she was questioned repeatedly by Iranian intelligence officials about her activities.

Farda journalist Azima is free on bail while awaiting trial in Iran.

No trial dates have been announced for Tajbakhsh, Esfandiari, or Azima. Iran does not recognize their dual citizenship.

Political Pawns?

Jamshidi's comments today are the first official confirmation from Tehran about formal charges against Tajbakhsh.

Abdolkarim Lahidji is the deputy director of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights, and he also heads the League for Defense of Human Rights in Iran.

Lahidji told RFE/RL today that he thinks Tehran is using U.S.-Iranian citizens as political pawns in relations with the United States.

"Unfortunately this is a formula that is being used by the Revolutionary Court and the Intelligence Ministry against people they detain for whatever charges," Lahidji said.

Lahidji said he hopes the prisoners are released soon and that the Iranian government returns Azima's passport so she can leave Iran.

Reports Of More Detentions

U.S. media and the New York-based Human Rights Watch have reported that a fourth U.S.-Iranian, Ali Shakeri, has been detained in Iran in recent weeks.

Jamshidi today insisted Shakeri was "not detained," but he gave no further details about him.

U.S. officials also think Tehran may be holding former FBI official Robert Levinson, who went missing early in March while on a visit to the Iranian island of Kish. Iran has denied this.

Washington and Tehran are locked in a dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Washington suspects that program is aimed at making nuclear weapons. But Tehran says it is only for the peaceful generation of nuclear power.

The two countries on Monday (May 28) held the most high-profile direct talks since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. But those talks in Baghdad were restricted to the issue of security in Iraq.

Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to Tehran on Sunday (May 27) to condemn what it says is U.S. backing of "spy networks" inside Iran.

(Radio Farda and agency reports)

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