WASHINGTON – President Bush demanded Friday that Iran “immediately and unconditionally” release four Iranian-Americans held on suspicion of espionage, escalating their detention into a standoff between the two countries.
In a statement released by the White House, Bush said he strongly condemned the detention of the four, and he insisted that their presence in Iran “poses no threat.”
“These individuals have dedicated themselves to building bridges between the American and Iranian people, a goal the Iranian regime claims to support,” he said.
Bush added that he was disturbed that the Iranian government has refused to provide details on former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared while visiting Iran on private business in March. Bush called on Iran’s leaders “to tell us what they know about his whereabouts.”
The other four detainees are: Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.; Kian Tajbakhsh, with George Soros’ Open Society Institute; journalist Parnaz Azima, with U.S.-funded Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist and founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine.
Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima formally were charged this week with espionage and endangering Iranian national security. Relatives and colleagues deny the charges.
Bush’s comments signaled the administration’s growing concern over a situation that threatens U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach agreements with Iran on ways to stabilize Iraq and work out a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program.
Although those efforts are top priorities for the White House, the administration also faces growing pressure in the United States to take action to secure the release of the Iranian-American prisoners, experts said.
Members of Congress, presidential candidates and others have called for action on the detentions, which some have compared to the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official, said the detentions might be a sign that policymakers in Iran want to increase the heat on the United States.
“There is real risk that actions on the ground are going to overtake the very late (American) effort to start a diplomatic process,” said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.
In its dealings with the United States, Riedel said, Iran is showing signs of a “very heady, and dangerous, mixture of confidence and paranoia.” Although confident that their power in the region is growing and America’s is waning, the Iranians hope to teach Washington, D.C., not to intervene in the Middle East, Riedel said.
When Tehran hears of American money going to Iranian reform groups and sees news reports suggesting possible U.S. action against Iran, “(a)ll these things contribute to a very explosive brew,” Riedel said.
U.S. officials have said they have been trying to win the release of the four primarily by speaking through the Swiss diplomats who speak for the Americans in Tehran. The U.S. has not had a diplomatic relationship with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis.