TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran has charged three U.S.-Iranian citizens with spying, officials said on Tuesday, a day after Washington and Tehran held their most high-profile talks in nearly 30 years.
Under Iran's Islamic sharia law, the charge could carry the death sentence. Judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi said the three were academic Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh and journalist Parnaz Azima.
News of the charges emerged one day after officials from Iran and the United States, antagonists since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, met in Baghdad for talks on how to end the conflict in Iraq.
Tehran accuses Washington of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls "velvet revolution." The United States has dismissed the accusation and denied that the three were spies.
A top Iranian Intelligence Ministry official said on Tuesday foreign powers were attempting to recruit university professors attending conferences abroad, state television reported.
"Unfortunately our university professors are under threat of being used by other countries' intelligence services," the unnamed official was quoted as saying.
Iran has arrested, detained or prevented at least three U.S.-Iranian citizens from leaving the country, including Esfandiari, director of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Middle East program.
The United States has condemned the arrest of Esfandiari, detained on May 8 and accused of acting against national security and spying.
U.S. DEMANDS RELEASE
U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey on Tuesday denied Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima were spies and again called for their release. "It's absolutely absurd to think that they in any way, shape or form pose a threat to the Iranian regime," Casey told reporters.
Asked if he could deny the three were spies, he said: "Absolutely. It's absurd to allege that they are American spies, American government employees, or that anything they've been doing in Iran is driven by American government concerns."
Jamshidi said the Intelligence Ministry was investigating the case of Tajbakhsh.
"Tajbakhsh's charges are acting against Iran's national security ... and spying for foreigners," he said.
The New York-based Open Society Institute said last week the social scientist and urban planner had been arrested and imprisoned in Iran on or about May 11.
Azima, a reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Farda, has been stopped from leaving Iran, although Jamshidi said Azima was not under arrest.
"Azima is ... free. But she faces the same charges" of acting against national security and spying, said Jamshidi.
Washington and Tehran are at odds over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making atom bombs. They have not had diplomatic ties since just after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.
Monday's rare U.S.-Iranian talks were narrowly focused on Iraq's spiraling sectarian violence and did not touch on issues like Tehran's nuclear ambitions, which Iran says are peaceful.
Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to Tehran on Sunday to condemn what it said was U.S. backing of "spy networks" inside Iran.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington)