WASHINGTON — The United States confirmed that a missing Irvine peace activist has become the fourth Iranian American detained by Iran on suspicion of espionage, and warned U.S. citizens against traveling to the country.
"American citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while traveling or residing in Iran," the State Department said after confirming that Ali Shakeri, who has been missing in Iran for more than two weeks, is being held at the notorious Evin prison in Tehran.
"As with the other cases, this is simply ridiculous," said deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey. "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."
Casey, as well as relatives and employers of the four detainees, said those being held were in Iran visiting family members or engaged in professional work.
Casey said there had been no response to requests for access to Shakeri or the other Americans by Swiss diplomats who represent U.S. interests in Iran.
Shakeri, a founding board member at UC Irvine's Center for Citizen Peacebuilding, had been scheduled to leave Iran and fly to Europe in the first half of May.
Larry Kugelman, a fellow board member, said that knowing where Shakeri was being held and that he was still alive brought some relief.
"It's better than not knowing at all," he said.
He called Shakeri's detention absurd. "He was a simple, straightforward, peace-loving man who was going to see his sick mother," Kugelman said.
Members of Orange County's large Iranian American community have been signing a letter to send to the Iranian president asking for Shakeri's release.
"He was in favor of peaceful negotiations between Iran and the U.S. government, which is why this is such a shame," said Ahmad Mesbah, a longtime friend.
The three other Iranian Americans in custody in Iran are academic Haleh Esfandiari; Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with George Soros' Open Society Institute; and journalist Parnaz Azima.
Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima have been charged with espionage and endangering national security, but it was not immediately clear whether Shakeri also had been charged.
Several international human rights groups urged Iran to immediately release the four.