Iran's judiciary said Tuesday it will decide within days whether to indict or free four Iranian-Americans charged with endangering national security in a case that has heightened bitterness between the rival nations.
The announcement came as Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, warned that the United States would "regret" its detention of five Iranian officials by U.S. forces in Iraq, which has angered Tehran for months.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeated U.S. calls for the Americans to be released and again rejected any link between them and the five Iranian detainees.
"You have a situation where you had five individuals who were engaged in activities related to trying to kill our troops," he said. "On the other hand, you have in Iran innocent civilians who for the most part were going there to visit family members, and in two cases these were grandmothers."
Iran has not directly linked its arrests of the four Americans over the past month and the January seizure of the Iranians, whom the U.S. accuses of arming and funding militants in Iraq.
But the Iranians' detention and a U.S. military build-up in the Persian Gulf have fueled Tehran's accusations that Washington is seeking to topple Iran's Islamic government. At the same time, tensions are high over claims by the U.S. and its allies that Iran is seeking to build a nuclear weapon, which Tehran denies.
Iran's Intelligence Ministry accuses the four arrested Americans of trying to build up a network that could eventually topple the government in a "soft revolution." The families and employers of the Americans have denied the accusations.
Ali Reza Jamshidi, the judicial spokesman, said a judge would complete his preliminary investigation "within the next two or three days."
"The judge will decide by next week whether to free or indict them" on charges of acting against national security, Jamshidi told reporters. Several weeks ago, Jamshidi said they had also been charged with espionage, but he did not repeat that Tuesday.
U.S. denies allegations
President Bush has demanded that Iran "immediately and unconditionally" release the four. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The Associated Press the four were accused "of things that clearly are untrue."
The four include Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who has been jailed at Evin prison since early May. The 67-year-old Esfandiari was arrested while visiting Iran to see her ailing mother.
Two others in detention are Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with George Soros' Open Society Institute, and Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the University of California, Irvine, Center for Citizen Peacebuilding. The fourth is Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for the U.S.-funded Radio Farda and is out of jail on bail but not allowed to leave the country.
Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, said the charges against his wife are "baseless."
"After 36 days in solitary confinement, it is about time the judiciary reached a decision in this matter," he said from Potomac, Md. "Any decision to go to trial or to continue making false accusations against my wife would obviously be a miscarriage of justice."
Jamshidi said Esfandiari was "in complete health," but Bakhash said he was worried about his wife. Esfandiari's mother has not been allowed to deliver medicine to her daughter, who weighed only about 100 pounds when she was taken into custody.
"Any assurances that she is in good health can only be confirmed when she is allowed to see her family and her lawyers," Bakhash said.
Esfandiari has for years brought prominent Iranians to Washington to talk about the political situation in Iran, some of whom have been subsequently detained and questioned at home. Her defenders say some of those she brought to the U.S. were supporters of the Iranian government who sought to explain its stance.
Straining already tense relations
The arrests of the four Americans and the detention of the Iranians in Iraq have compounded the tensions between the two countries, at loggerheads over the violence in Iraq and the nuclear issue.
Iran has repeatedly demanded the release of five Iranians seized in a raid in northern Iraq, saying they are diplomats and guests of the Iraqi government.
Speaking of the detention, Mottaki warned, "We will make the Americans regret their ugly and illegal act." He did not elaborate.
However, Mottaki added that Iran was still willing to continue direct talks with the United States on Iraq, which began last month in Baghdad. And Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, Hasan Kazemi Qomi, who represented Iran at the May talks, said the issue of the "freedom of the diplomats" would be on the agenda of future Iran-U.S. talks.