TEHRAN, Iran – Iran has arrested three Americans for illegally entering the country from neighboring Iraq and a prominent Iranian lawmaker said Tuesday that authorities were investigating whether to charge them with spying.
A U.S. official rejected the allegation, and a security official in Iraq said the three were merely backpackers who got lost while hiking in a region where the Iran-Iraq border is not clearly marked.
The case is the latest source of friction with Washington over the detention of Americans, following the espionage trial earlier this year of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi. Such a confrontation could be especially thorny this time around, when Iran is mired in its worst political crisis in 30 years over the disputed June 12 presidential election.
The Americans – freelance journalist Shane Bauer, his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, all University of California, Berkeley graduates – were hiking in a picturesque region of Iraq’s northern Kurdish region near the Iranian border that is known for lush vegetation, pistachio groves and fruit trees.
The Iraqi regional security chief in Sulaimaniyah said the area is poorly marked and the three simply lost their bearings when they crossed into western Iran and were arrested on Friday. He urged Iranian authorities to free them.
“Our investigations proved there was no political or military reason for the border crossing. They simply made a mistake,” said the Iraqi official, Hakim Qadir Humat Jan.
“They came as tourists. Nothing about the way they were traveling points to a possibility of spying. Their financial situation was also weak – they traveled in a crowded bus and stayed at a cheap hotel — and they entered Kurdistan legally.”
“I call on the Iranians to set them free,” Jan said, adding that the mountainous area where the Americans were arrested contains dense foliage and narrow trails, and it’s difficult to make out where Iraqi Kurdistan ends and Iran begins.
An Iranian lawmaker and member of parliament’s National Security Committee rejected the suggestion the Americans were tourists.
“Surely we can say that they came as spies,” said Mohammad Karim Abedi, a hard-line lawmaker, speaking on Iran’s state-run Al-Alam TV.
“The U.S. forces are trying to leave some security elements behind, after leaving Iraq,” Abedi added.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert A. Wood dismissed the allegations of espionage and said U.S. officials were still trying to determine the fate of the Americans.
He said the Swiss ambassador in Tehran had met with Iranian officials on Washington’s behalf “trying to ascertain the information and location of these individuals, but hasn’t been able to do so.”