Iran files charges against 3 Americans

Published May 30, 2007

WASHINGTON - Iran has formally charged three Americans with espionage and endangering national security, the government's judicial spokesman said Tuesday, signaling a widening clampdown against U.S. citizens in Iran.

The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari; social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of New York's Open Society Institute, which seeks to promote democracy; and correspondent Parnaz Azima of the U.S.-funded Radio Farda. Iran announced over the weekend that it had uncovered U.S. spy networks and protested to the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the charges a "perversion of the rule of law, " while a State Department spokesman said the charges are absurd and appealed to Tehran to immediately free the Americans.

"These are individuals who are private citizens. They are not party to any of the policy disputes between the government of the United States and the government of Iran, " spokesman Tom Casey said.

Rice said she did not see a link between the charges against the three Americans and the fate of five Iranian Revolutionary Guard members detained by U.S. troops in January in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Iran has acted against two other dual U.S.-Iranian citizens, including California businessman Ali Shakeri. The fifth American has not been named.

The charges came one day after landmark talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad over the future of Iraq. The talks ended a 27-year diplomatic freeze.

Human Rights Watch criticized Iran's actions. "The charges announced by the judiciary are politically motivated, and the only evidence they have are professional activities, such as organizing or attending international conferences. This is truly a witch hunt, " said Hadi Ghaemi, Iran analyst of Human Rights Watch.

Iran's Intelligence Ministry and state-controlled TV reported last week that Esfandiari, a Potomac, Md., resident and director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, was charged with "crimes against national security." But the new charges are more specific and serious. Spying is a capital crime in Iran.

The Wilson Center said it is extremely disheartened over the news from Iran.

In New York, a spokeswoman for the Open Society Institute - established by philanthropist George Soros - said the charges against Tajbakhsh are without merit.

A Radio Farda spokesman said Parnaz's attorney believes she has not been charged with espionage but with spreading antigovernment propaganda.