WASHINGTON â€” US President George W.Â Bush on Friday strongly condemned Iranâ€™s detention of American citizens and called for them to be freed â€œimmediately and unconditionally.â€ Tehran has accused dual US-Iranian citizens Haleh Esfandiari, an academic, Kian Tajbakhsh, a social scientist, and Parnaz Azima, a journalist, of spying. The State Department said on Thursday that a fourth Iranian American was detained, Ali Shakeri, a California businessman.
â€œTheir presence in Iran â€” to visit their parents or to conduct humanitarian work â€” poses no threat,â€ Bush said in a statement.
White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said Bush decided to make the statement on Friday because the Americans had been detained for some time and then charged, â€œand that represented an escalation on the part of the Iranians.â€ The dispute is not helpful in resolving outstanding disagreements with Iran over its nuclear programme and its influence inside Iraq, he said.
â€œItâ€™s an unfortunate development and these people need to be let go promptly,â€ Hadley told reporters. He said messages had been sent both privately and publicly on the issue.
Iran accuses Washington of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls a â€œvelvet revolution.â€ A charge of spying could carry the death sentence under Iranâ€™s Sharia law.
Middle East expert Kenneth Katzman of the Library of Congressâ€™ Congressional Research Service expressed concern that the public statement by Bush â€œmight harden Iranian views that these people were indeed working for regime change (in Tehran) and it may make it more difficultâ€ to obtain their release.
But an associate of one of the detained Americans, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue, said statements by the US government in general and Bush in particular were a good thing in advocating for their release.
After initially remaining relatively quiet on the detentions as behind-the-scenes efforts to gain their release proceeded, the US government in the past week has been vocal in demanding freedom for those detained.
â€œI strongly condemn their detention at the hands of Iranian authorities. They should be freed immediately and unconditionally,â€ Bush said.
He also demanded to know the whereabouts of Robert Levinson, a former FBI official who went missing in early March while on a visit to the Iranian island of Kish.
â€œI am disturbed by the Iranian regimeâ€™s refusal so far to provide any information on Robert Levinson, despite repeated US requests,â€ Bush said. â€œI call on Iranâ€™s leaders to tell us what they know about his whereabouts.â€ He added: â€œThe United States is committed to protecting its citizens at home and abroad.â€ The United States, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the taking of hostages at the US embassy there, is embroiled in disputes with Tehran over its nuclear programme and its suspected support for the insurgency in Iraq.
Iran says its nuclear programme is not to produce atomic bombs, as the United States suspects, but rather to generate electricity so it can export more oil and gas. It has also denied US accusations it is fuelling the violence in Iraq.
Despite the disagreements, the United States and Iran held their most high-profile talks in three decades in Baghdad on Monday. The talks focused on Iraqâ€™s sectarian violence and did not touch on issues like Tehranâ€™s nuclear ambitions.
Katzman said he believes Iran detained the Americans as a way of pressuring Washington to release five Iranians captured in Iraq and to stop spending millions of dollars to promote democracy in Iran.Â