BERLIN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Iran of perverting the rule of law by charging three Iranian-Americans with spying and denied they were involved in espionage.
“These are not people who are engaged in espionage. These are good dual citizens of the United States and Iran and it would have been a good thing if Iran were able to welcome people who want to improve life for Iranians and improve freedoms in Iran,” she said.
“It is really just a perversion of the rule of law,” Rice told reporters late on Tuesday on her way to a G8 foreign ministers meeting in Germany.
Tehran’s judiciary spokesman, Alireza Jamshidi, said earlier in the day the three dual citizens charged with acting against national security and spying 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, held a rare meeting in Baghdad on how to end the conflict in Iraq.
Rice said the three charged with spying, and a fourth Iranian-American detained in recent weeks, were just visiting their families and trying to improve the lives of Iranians.
Tehran accuses Washington of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic state through what it calls a “velvet revolution.”
The United States, which actively tries to promote cultural, sporting and other ties with the Iranian population but isolates its government, has dismissed the accusation.
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. The Swiss embassy represents U.S. interests in Iran.
The issue of the detained Iranian-Americans was not raised in the Baghdad talks and neither was the U.S. arrest of five Iranians in northern Iraq in January, whose release Tehran has been demanding. “The two are wholly unconnected,” said Rice.
Rice said the Iranians professed to have an interest in a stable Iraq but their actions indicated the opposite was true.
Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars’ Middle East program in Washington D.C., was detained on May 8.
Tajbakhsh’s employer, the New York-based Open Society Institute, said the social scientist and urban planner had been arrested and imprisoned in Iran around May 11.
Under Iran’s Islamic sharia law, the charge could carry the death sentence.
Jamshidi said Parnaz Azima, a reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Farda, was not under arrest, but faced the same charges as Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh.
A fourth dual citizen, Ali Shakeri, is also believed to have been banned from leaving Iran, but Jamshidi said he had been neither arrested nor charged.
U.S. officials also suspect Tehran may be holding former FBI official Robert Levinson, who went missing early in March while on a visit to the Iranian island of Kish. Iran has denied this.