Iran said Monday it would try three Americans jailed since crossing the border from Iraq in July, a step certain to aggravate the U.S. at a time when Tehran is locked in a standoff with the West over its nuclear program.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not say when proceedings would begin or specify the charge other than to say the Americans had "suspicious aims." In November, however, authorities accused the Americans of spying.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Iranian move was "totally unfounded" and appealed anew to authorities in Iran to release them.
"We consider this a totally unfounded charge," she told reporters. "There is no basis for it. The three young people who were detained by the Iranians have absolutely no connection with any kind of action against the Iranian state or government."
"In fact, they were out hiking and unfortunately, apparently, allegedly, walked across an unmarked boundary," she said. "We appeal to the Iranian leadership to release these three young people and free them as soon as possible."
There are concerns in the U.S. that Iran could use the three, arrested July 31, as bargaining chips in talks over its nuclear program or in seeking the return of Iranians they say are missing.
"They will be tried by Iran's judiciary system and verdicts will be issued," Mottaki said at a news conference, without elaborating. He said the three were still being interrogated.
Even if the Americans are tried, however, there is still a chance they could be released fairly soon. Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison, before she was released on an appeal in May.
Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari of Newsweek was released in October on bail and allowed to leave the country after being swept up in the post-election crackdown on street protests.
No diplomatic relations
The Americans — Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27 — were detained by Iranian authorities after crossing an unmarked border from northern Iraq.
They have been held in Iran's Evin prison, where Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and said they are healthy. Because the U.S. and Iran do not have direct diplomatic relations, the Swiss Embassy maintains an American interests section.
The three graduates of the University of California at Berkeley had been trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, their relatives say.
Bauer and Shourd had been living in Damascus, Syria — he studying Arabic, she teaching English — and both had done freelance journalism or writing online. Friends have described them as passionate adventurers interested in the Middle East and human rights.
Fattal, who spent three years with a group dedicated to sustainable farming near Cottage Grove, Oregon, had been overseas since January as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program.
Fattal's mother, Laura, declined to comment on Monday's announcement.
Accused of spying
In November, Tehran chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the three "have been accused of espionage." But it was not clear from his brief comments whether formal charges had been filed against the Americans.
Raising concerns that Iran might be seeking to use them in a deal, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted last month that the United States was holding several Iranian citizens.
In particular, he drew a link between the case of the three Americans and the trial in the U.S. of Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian who faces up to 140 years in prison after pleading guilty to plotting to ship sensitive U.S. military technology to Iran.
According to court papers, Ardebili worked as a procurement agent for the Iranian government and acquired thousands of components, including military aircraft parts, night vision devices and communications equipment. U.S. federal authorities targeted him in 2004 after he contacted an undercover storefront set up in Philadelphia to investigate illegal arms trafficking.