TEHRAN, Iran – Iran accused three detained Americans of spying Monday, signaling Tehran intends to put them on trial. It drew a sharp U.S. response that the charges are baseless because the hikers strayed across the border from Iraq.
The announcement comes as Washington and Tehran are deadlocked in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, raising concern that the three could be used as bargaining chips in the talks or to seek the return of Iranians they say are missing.
Relatives and the U.S government say the three were innocent tourists on an adventure hike in northern Iraq and accidentally crossed into Iran where they were arrested on July 31.
Commenting on the case, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the U.S. of jailing innocent Iranians and pointed to two of his countrymen – a nuclear scientist and a top defense official – who disappeared in recent years. Tehran accuses the U.S. of kidnapping them. The U.S. has refused comment on the two, and there has been speculation they defected to the West.
Ahmadinejad said the Americans had crossed the border illegally and Iran has a right to punish them.
The Americans – Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27 – have been held in Iran’s Evin prison, where Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and said they are healthy.
The three graduates of the University of California at Berkeley had been trekking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, their relatives say.
Monday’s announcement by Tehran’s top prosecutor was the first official word from Iran of espionage allegations against the three. Until now, Iranian officials have only spoken about the Americans in broad terms, saying even after months of questioning that they were still trying to determine why they had entered Iran.
The hikers’ families declined interview requests Monday, but issued a statement saying “the allegations that our loved ones may have been engaged in espionage is untrue.”
The White House called for their release, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the spying accusations were baseless.
“We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever,” she said in Berlin.