AP: Iran has arrested three Americans for illegally entering the country from neighboring Iraq and a prominent Iranian lawmaker said Tuesday that authorities were investigating whether to charge them with spying.
The Associated Press
By NASSER KARIMI and JASON KEYSER
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran has arrested three Americans for illegally entering the country from neighboring Iraq and a prominent Iranian lawmaker said Tuesday that authorities were investigating whether to charge them with spying.
A U.S. official rejected the allegation, and a security official in Iraq said the three were merely backpackers who got lost while hiking in a mountainous region where the Iran-Iraq border is not clearly marked.
The case is the latest source of friction with Washington over the detention of Americans, following the espionage trial earlier this year of American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi. Such a confrontation could be especially thorny this time around, when Iran is mired in its worst political crisis in 30 years over the disputed June 12 presidential election.
The Americans — freelance journalist Shane Bauer, his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal — were hiking in a picturesque region of Iraq's northern Kurdish region near the Iranian border that is known for lush vegetation, pistachio groves and fruit trees.
The Iraqi regional security chief in Sulaimaniyah said the area is poorly marked and the three simply lost their bearings when they crossed into western Iran and were arrested on Friday. He urged Iranian authorities to free them.
"Our investigations proved there was no political or military reason for the border crossing. They simply made a mistake," said the Iraqi official, Hakim Qadir Humat Jan.
"They came as tourists. Nothing about the way they were traveling points to a possibility of spying. Their financial situation was also weak — they traveled in a crowded bus and stayed at a cheap hotel — and they entered Kurdistan legally."
"I call on the Iranians to set them free," Jan said, adding that the mountainous area where the Americans were arrested contains dense foliage and narrow trails, and it's difficult to make out where Iraqi Kurdistan ends and Iran begins.
An Iranian lawmaker and member of parliament's National Security Committee rejected the suggestion the Americans were tourists and said authorities were investigating whether to charge them with espionage.
"Surely we can say that they came as spies," said Mohammad Karim Abedi, a hard-line lawmaker, speaking on Iran's state-run Al-Alam TV. "The concerned authorities will decide whether they were spies or not. If it is proven that they were spies, the necessary legal procedures will be sought against them."
"The U.S. forces are trying to leave some security elements behind, after leaving Iraq," Abedi added. "It's unacceptable to penetrate Iran's borders this way. … We condemn this."
He sought to compare the matter with a case involving British military personnel seized by Iran in March 2007 after Tehran said they had entered Iranian waters from Iraqi territory. The 15 sailors and marines were held for nearly two weeks, and some were paraded on Iranian television to deliver supposed confessions of trespassing.
State television said the latest case involving the Americans was being used by the West as anti-Iranian propaganda, and questioned whether they were hikers, saying they had been identified in Western reports as journalists.
U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert A. Wood dismissed the allegations of espionage and said U.S. officials were still trying to determine the fate of the Americans.
He said the Swiss ambassador in Tehran had met with Iranian officials on Washington's behalf "trying to ascertain the information and location of these individuals, but hasn't been able to do so. He's going to continue to push to try to get that information for us."
Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran because the two countries have not had diplomatic relations since the American hostage crisis of 1979.
Earlier, the hard-line Fars news agency, considered close to the elite Revolutionary Guard, quoted the deputy governor of Iran's Kurdistan province as saying the Americans entered Iran at the Malakh-Khor border point, near the town of Marivan, about 370 miles west of the capital Tehran, and were arrested.
The three had Iraqi and Syrian visas, said the official, Iraj Hassanzadeh.
The case against Saberi put new strains on the already rocky U.S.-Iran relationship at a time when President Barack Obama sought to reach out to Tehran for a dialogue over its contentious nuclear program.
Saberi, who had lived in Iran for six years and also had Iranian citizenship, was arrested on Jan. 31 and accused of spying. She denied the charges, but was sentenced to eight years in prison. An appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and she was released on May 11.
Bauer, one of the Americans detained last week, identifies himself as a freelance reporter and photographer based in the Middle East and says he has reported from Iraq, Syria, Sudan's Darfur region and Yemen, according to his Web site.
He was in the region to cover the July 25 regional elections in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish area, according to Pacific News Service Executive Director Sandy Close, who said she does not believe he ever intended to go to neighboring Iran.
In an e-mail, Bauer told Close he wanted to "feel out the situation (in Kurdistan) and get some ideas for deeper stories," she said.
"Kurdistan is the big story in Iraq now," Bauer wrote in the e-mail provided to The Associated Press. "I'm off to Kurdistan … "
She said Bauer told her he planned to go backpacking with Shourd in a popular tourist area known for its scenery, where the pair met up with Fattal. All three were graduates of the University of California, Berkeley.
Close said Bauer would not have deliberately tried to enter Iran.
"He did not express any interest in going to Iran. He did not speak Farsi, his passion was Arabic," she said.
Bauer has traveled to the Middle East and North Africa and was most recently based in Damascus where he is working on a film about Darfur.
Shourd has written for a number of online publications, including Brave New Traveler. Ross Borden, founder of an online travel magazine that includes Brave New Traveler, described her as "very professional. She wrote a great story for us."
Fattal had been a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program from January to June, visiting Switzerland, India, South Africa and China on a global ecology program, according to program president Joan Tiffany said.
"He's a very thoughtful, caring person, soft-spoken, smart, bright. Has lots of travel experience," Tiffany said.
Keyser reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, Jason Dearen in San Francisco, Patrick Condon in Minneapolis, Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia and Michelle Locke in Berkeley, Calif. contributed to this report.