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Iran Says Former Minister Held By U.S.

Former Deputy Defense Minister Ali Asgari disappeared in 2007.
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran believes the United States is holding a former deputy defense minister who disappeared in 2007 and 10 other Iranian nationals, according to a list carried by the semi-official Mehr news agency.

Separately, a Saudi official denied Iran's claim that Riyadh handed an Iranian nuclear scientist to the United States, saying the kingdom had searched in vain for him on its territory.

"Saudi authorities searched for him after being informed of his disappearance in Medina and at all the hospitals, hotels, and centers in Mecca -- even at his place of residence -- but they could not find him," Saudi Foreign Ministry media chief Osama al-Nogali said.

On December 8, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman said 11 Iranians were being detained in the United States, naming only the missing scientist, Shahram Amiri.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, speaking to reporters in Washington, declined to comment on the situation.

The list on Mehr also named former Deputy Minister Ali Reza Asgari and included a former ambassador to Jordan.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relationship for three decades and are embroiled in a long-running row over Tehran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Iran denies the charge.

Iran's Foreign Ministry was "seriously following" the cases of the 11 Iranians held in the United States through legal and diplomatic channels, Mehr said.

In 2007, Iran's police chief suggested that Asgari, who disappeared in Turkey that year, had been kidnapped by Western intelligence services. Israel and the United States have denied any involvement in the disappearance.

At the time, Turkish newspapers reported that Asgari had information on Iran's nuclear program. Turkish, Arabic and Israeli media have suggested Asgari defected to the West, but his family dismissed that.

"There are documents and evidence showing he has been transferred to the United States," Mehr said.

Amiri, a researcher working for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, disappeared during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June. Media reports said he wanted to seek asylum abroad.

Three months after he disappeared, Iran disclosed the existence of its second uranium enrichment site, near the central holy Shi'ite city of Qom, further heightening tension over the Islamic state's atomic activities.

Saudi Arabia, a key regional ally of the United States, shares its fears that Iran's nuclear energy program is aimed in part at acquiring nuclear weapons and opposes Tehran's backing for Shi'ite and anti-U.S. militant groups in the region such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.