Reporting from Beirut — Confusion continued to surround the fate of a woman described as an American spy Saturday by a high-ranking Iranian security official who said she had been arrested. The U.S. State Department, however, denied the woman was in Iranian custody.
Iranian Brig. Gen. Amir-Ahmad Geravand of the national border police first told reporters that a 34-year-old American woman named Hal Talaian had been arrested Wednesday near the town of Jolfa along the Iran-Azerbaijan border, state-controlled Al Alam television and the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.
But in a later radio interview, Geravand hedged his remarks on her nationality.
"She once said that she was an American national," he told state radio. "On another occasion, she said that she was a Swiss national. She has mentioned various countries."
The location of her arrest also was uncertain Saturday, with some reports early in the day saying that Talaian had been detained along the Armenian border. Iranian state TV, meanwhile, denied that an American had been detained, according to the Associated Press.
Such discrepancies and vagaries regarding state matters are common in Iran, where multiple, overlapping and competing intelligence and security organizations jostle with one another to pursue sometimes contradictory aims.
And in Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the woman has been located by U.S. officials, who have "confirmed that the individual is safe," the Associated Press reported. Toner said the woman is not in Iran, and a U.S. official who declined to be identified because of privacy concerns said the woman is in Istanbul, Turkey, and that American consular officials are in touch with her.
Iran already holds two Americans who allegedly crossed its western frontier with Iraq nearly 18 months ago. Joshua Fattal and Shane Bauer have been held on espionage charges since July 31, 2009, when they and another friend, Sarah Shourd, were confronted by border guards during a hiking trip. Shourd was released in September.
Geravand said Talaian had entered Iran on a valid visa but was arrested Wednesday while "filming advanced equipment" under the guise of being a tourist. Al Alam cited Geravand as saying the woman was allegedly taking photographs of guard posts along the border.
"She was arrested while filming and she has confessed," Geravand told state radio.
"The legal procedure has taken its course and she has been handed over to the officials of the intelligence bureau," said Geravand, who said Talaian was "on assignment from an American espionage organization."
Earlier reports said Talaian had tried to cross the Iran-Armenian border near the town of Nordouz but was denied entry because she lacked a visa. Officials in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, had denied reports that someone fitting such a description had entered Armenia, been turned away or arrested at the Iranian border.