TEHRAN Three U.S. citizens detained in Iran and charged with espionage will stand trial, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Monday, in a case that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called "totally unfounded."
The three were held after they strayed into Iran from northern Iraq at the end of July, further complicating relations between Tehran and Washington that were already deadlocked over Iran's nuclear program.
"They have entered Iran with suspicious aims. The judiciary will try them," Mottaki told a news conference, adding that "relevant sentences" would be issued. He did not elaborate.
Clinton repeated the U.S. government position that the charges were totally unfounded and the hikers should be released.
"The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government," Clinton told reporters after a meeting with the Spanish foreign minister.
"We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and free them as soon as possible," she said.
Last month, Iran's judiciary announced espionage charges against the three -- Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27. Their families said they were hiking and had strayed across the border accidentally.
Under Iran's Islamic law, sharia, espionage can be punishable by death.
The case comes at a time of high tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear plans and after Iranian officials accused foreign nations of fueling unrest after a disputed presidential election in June.
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Tehran after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The two countries are now embroiled in a row over Iran's nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making bombs. Tehran denies this.
Clinton said recent revelations about Iran's nuclear program, including the announcement of a previously undisclosed second enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom, had heightened concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions.
She added that U.S. efforts to engage Iran in nuclear talks had "produced very little" and that the international community would seek new ways to urge Tehran to change its course.
"Certainly additional pressure is going to be called for in order to do that," she said.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in an interview with the American television network NBC in September that the Americans' release might be linked to the release of Iranian diplomats he said were being held by U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iran's Foreign Ministry earlier this month said it believed 11 Iranians were being detained in the United States, including a missing nuclear scientist and a former deputy defense minister who disappeared in 2007.
Ahmadinejad's re-election sparked Iran's worst unrest since the 1979 revolution. Authorities deny vote-rigging and portrayed huge opposition protests that erupted after the poll as a foreign-backed bid to undermine the Islamic state.
In November, the families of the three Americans appealed again for their release, saying they feared for their mental well-being after more than three months in captivity.
Clotilde Reiss, a French teaching assistant, was arrested in Iran on spying charges on July 1 in connection with the post-vote unrest. She was released on bail in August but not allowed to leave the country.
(Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington; writing by Fredrik Dahl; editing by Diana Abdallah and Paul Simao)