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Bush calls for Iran to release 4

He condemns detention of the Americans on suspicion of espionage.

June 02, 2007|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush demanded Friday that Iran "immediately and unconditionally" release four Iranian Americans held on suspicion of espionage, escalating their detention into a standoff between the two countries.

In a statement released by the White House, Bush said that he strongly condemned the detention of the four, and he insisted that their presence in Iran "poses no threat."

"These individuals have dedicated themselves to building bridges between the American and Iranian people, a goal the Iranian regime claims to support," he said.

Bush added that he was disturbed that the Iranian government had refused to provide details about former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in March while visiting Iran on private business. Bush called on Iran's leaders "to tell us what they know about his whereabouts."

The four detainees are Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington; Kian Tajbakhsh, with George Soros' Open Society Institute; journalist Parnaz Azima, with U.S.-funded Radio Farda; and Ali Shakeri, a peace activist and founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at UC Irvine.

Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh and Azima were formally charged this week with espionage and endangering Iranian national security. Relatives and colleagues deny the charges.

Bush's comments signaled the administration's growing concern over a situation that threatens U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach agreements with Iran on ways to stabilize Iraq and a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program.

Although those efforts are top priorities for the White House, the Bush administration also faces growing pressure in the United States to act to secure the release of the Iranian American prisoners, experts said.

Members of Congress, presidential candidates and others have called for action on the detentions, which some have compared to the hostage-taking at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.

Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and National Security Council official, said the detentions may be a sign that policymakers in Iran want to increase pressure on the United States.

"There is real risk that actions on the ground are going to overtake the very late [U.S.] effort to start a diplomatic process," said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution.

Iran is showing signs of a "very heady, and dangerous, mixture of confidence and paranoia" in its dealings with the United States, Riedel said. Though confident that its power in the region is growing and America's is waning, Iran hopes to teach Washington not to intervene in the Middle East, Riedel said.

When Tehran hears of American money going to Iranian reform groups and sees news reports suggesting possible U.S. action against Iran, "all these things contribute to a very explosive brew."

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, believes the decision to hold the four Iranian Americans was pushed by "hard-line elements who basically want to obstruct the talks -- to poison the well and make it more difficult for the diplomacy to work."

Chief among them are groups that control the country's huge industrial conglomerates and fear that engagement with the U.S. would force an economic restructuring that would threaten their wealth, Parsi said.

Parsi said the crisis demonstrated that it was untenable for U.S. officials to hold talks with Iran on the subject of Iraq while excluding other points of dispute from the discussion.

U.S. officials have said they are trying to win the release of the four primarily through the Swiss diplomats who speak for Washington in Tehran. The United States has not had a diplomatic relationship with Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis.

This week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the arrests were "really just a perversion of the rule of law."

paul.richter@latimes.com

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