TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s intelligence minister said on Sunday he had no doubt three U.S. citizens arrested last July near the Iraq border were spies and called on Washington to propose a prisoner swap to secure their release.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for the freeing of the three, whose arrest has further strained relations tested by an Iranian nuclear program. Iran’s judiciary has laid espionage charges against Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27.
Their families said they were hiking and strayed over the border accidentally.
“Their status as spies is explicit and certain and there is no equivocation in regard to a swap,” intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi told reporters on the sidelines of a cabinet meeting, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
“Our expectation is that the Americans, with their claim on human rights issues, should initiate an action so that we can decide on whether or not there would be one (a swap),” he said.
Relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic are strained by what Western powers believe are Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran denies the accusation, but U.S.-led efforts are afoot to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq has also weighed heavily on relations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in an interview with the U.S. 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.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Thursday Washington was not contemplating any kind of a prisoner swap.
“But if Iran has questions about any of its citizens and whether we have any information as to their whereabouts, we would be more than happy to receive that diplomatic note and respond to it.”
He described the three Americans as innocent tourists.
“It is time for Iran to do the right thing by releasing these three young Americans and allowing them to go home and be reunited with their families,” Crowley added.
Under Iranian law, espionage is punishable by death.
Reporting by Hashem Kalantari; writing by Robin Pomeroy; editing by Ralph Boulton