updated 5/31/2007 1:51:33 PM ET 2007-05-31T17:51:33

The United States said Thursday that a fourth Iranian-American has been detained in Iran and alleged that the country’s Islamic authorities are engaged in a “disturbing pattern” of harassment against dual citizens wrongly accused of spying.

The State Department confirmed that Ali Shakeri, a peace activist from Irvine, Calif., who has been missing in Iran for more than two weeks, is being held at a notorious prison in Tehran along with three others.

“Unfortunately, I can confirm for you that we now do know that he has also been taken into custody by Iranian officials,” deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters.

He said there had been no response to requests for access to Shakeri or the others by Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran and repeated flat denials that any of the four are spies or are employed by the U.S. government.

“As with the other cases this is simply ridiculous,” Casey said. “He has no standing with the U.S. government, he is not a U.S. government official, he is not operating or acting on behalf of the U.S. government. He is a private citizen.”

Shakeri, a founding board member at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, was supposed to leave Iran and fly to Europe on May 13 but never arrived at his destination.

3 other academics held
He joins three other Iranian-Americans — academic Haleh Esfandiari, Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and journalist Parnaz Azima — now in custody in Iran.

Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima have all been charged with endangering Iran’s national security and espionage, the country’s judiciary spokesman said Tuesday. It was not immediately clear on Thursday if Shakeri has been charged.

All were in Iran visiting family members or engaged in professional work, according to Casey and their relatives and employers.

“What we are seeing is a disturbing pattern on the part of the Iranians in efforts to harass these innocent people,” Casey said, adding that Iran’s claims to want a dialogue with the United States were undercut by the detentions.

“It certainly belies any notion that the regime is interested in promoting any kind of dialogue if they are attacking and harassing these Iranian-Americans who are doing nothing more than some pretty basic kinds of human contacts,” he said.

Rice calls arrests ‘a perversion ... of law’
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the treatment of Esfandiari and the other Iranian-Americans “a perversion of the rule of law.”

“These are people who are there trying to make life better in Iran,” Rice told reporters en route to Europe where she is attending meetings this week. “These are not people engaged in espionage.”

A fifth American citizen, former FBI agent Robert Levinson, has been missing in Iran since early March and Washington has cast severe doubts on Iranian claims to have no information about him in response to repeated requests through the Swiss and others.

“We are still pursuing his welfare and whereabouts,” Casey said. “We think that the Iranian government ought to be able to provide some information about him.”

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Perennially poor ties since then have been exacerbated in recent months by rising tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. allegations that Tehran is supporting armed groups in Iraq.

Last week, Iran said it has uncovered spy rings organized by the U.S. and its Western allies.

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