Three Americans arrested in July after crossing into Iran from neighboring Iraq are still under investigation, a prosecutor said Tuesday as he underlined Tehran's concern about 11 Iranians it says are being held in the U.S.
Iranian officials have repeatedly mentioned the cases together, and U.S. officials have been concerned that Iran could try to use the detained Americans _ said by their families to be innocent hikers who went astray _ as bargaining chips. The Tehran prosecutor did not explicitly link their case to those of the 11 Iranians.
"The Americans should know that there are 11 Iranian nationals in U.S. prisons. We hope the Americans are treating them based on regulations," prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Iran released a list earlier this month of 11 Iranians it says are being held in the U.S. _ including a nuclear scientist who disappeared in Saudi Arabia and a former Defense Ministry official who vanished in Turkey. The list also includes an Iranian arrested in Canada on charges of trying to obtain nuclear technology.
The prosecutor did not go into details about the case of the three Americans, whose families say they were trekking in northern Iraq's Kurdish region and accidentally strayed over the unmarked border with Iran.
Dowlatabadi said in November that the three were accused of espionage, though it was not clear if they were formally charged with spying. Several officials since then have said the Americans would be brought to trial, but without clarifying the charges.
The Americans' jailing comes amid a bitter standoff between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran's nuclear program.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the hikers had crossed an unmarked border and posed no threat to Iran, and that the case could have been easily resolved.
"We sense that in the Iranian government there is some kind of equivalency that they offer with regard to the hikers and Iranian citizens who have left Iran. There really is no equivalence at all," he said.
"I would just caution you that just because they've left Iran doesn't mean they're in any particular location," Crowley said of the Iranian citizens. He noted one case of an Iranian who was recently convicted of arms dealing in violation of sanctions against Iran.
Three of the Iranians on the list released this month have been convicted or charged in public court proceedings in the United States The circumstances surrounding some of the others are more mysterious.
Ali Reza Asgari, a retired general in the elite Revolutionary Guard and a former deputy defense minister, disappeared while on a private trip to Turkey in December 2006. Turkish media speculated at the time that he had defected to the United States, but that has never been confirmed.
Iran has said it appeared likely he was kidnapped by Western intelligence services and claims it has evidence to support its belief he was turned over to the U.S.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mentioned his name in November while commenting about the case of the three detained Americans, suggesting Iran could be pressuring the U.S. over the issue.
He also mentioned another Iranian on the list, Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist who went missing while on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in June. Iran's foreign minister has accused the U.S. of helping to kidnap him and has asked for his return.
The list also includes three Iranians who Tehran claims were abducted in Europe and sent to the U.S.: merchant Mohsen Afrasiabi, who it says disappeared in Germany, as well as electrical engineering student Majid Kakavand and a former ambassador to Jordan, Nasrollah Tajik, who it says vanished in France.
French media have reported that Kakavand was arrested in March at the request of the U.S. on suspicion he obtained electronic equipment. He was jailed, then moved to house arrest on Aug. 27. The French press has reported that Tajik went missing in Britain.
Three of the Iranians Tehran is asking about have faced public legal proceedings in the U.S.
One of them, Baktash Fattahi, is a legal U.S. resident. He was arrested in April in California and charged with conspiracy to export American-made military aircraft parts to Iran.
Another, Amir Amirnazmi, is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who was convicted by a court in Pennsylvania in February of business dealings with Iranian companies banned under U.S. sanctions.
Amir Hossein Ardebili was sentenced to five years in prison on Dec. 14 by a court in Wilmington, Delaware, after pleading guilty to plotting to ship U.S. military technology to Iran. Iran has called it a show trial and said Ardebili was abducted in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2007 before being handed over to U.S. authorities in 2008.
One of the other Iranians, Mahmoud Yadegari, was arrested in April in Canada after a joint investigation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and charged with trying to send nuclear technology to his native Iran. Authorities allege Yadegari tried to procure and export pressure transducers, which can be used in the production of enriched uranium but also have many legitimate commercial uses.
The other two Iranians on the list released by Tehran are Amir-Shahrzad Amir-Qolikhani and Hassan Saeid Kashari. Iran gave no information about them other than to say they are being held in the U.S. without charge.