TEHRAN, Iran — Iran said Monday a court will try three Americans who wandered across the border from Iraq last July and became ensnared in an increasingly bitter standoff with the West over Tehran's nuclear program.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki did not say when the trial would begin or even what the Americans were charged with, other than that they had "suspicious aims." Last month, Iran's chief prosecutor said they were accused of spying.
"They will be tried by Iran's judiciary system and verdicts will be issued," Mottaki told a news conference. He said the three were still being interrogated.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Iranian move was "totally unfounded" and appealed anew to authorities to release the Americans.
"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."
The three, Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, – all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley – had been trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region when they accidentally crossed into Iran, according to their relatives. The trio were arrested on July 31.
All three families declined to comment on Monday's announcement.
The case recalls that of American-Iranian journalist Roxanna Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January and convicted of espionage and sentenced to eight years in prison. She was freed on appeal in May after heavy pressure from the U.S. – and several months later, the U.S. military released five Iranians it had held for more than two years.
The accusations against the three Americans could be a first step in a similar move by Iran to put them on trial and convict them, then arrange their release, aiming to get concessions.
There is precedent, however, for the release of foreigners without any apparent conditions. Canadian-Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari of Newsweek was released on bail and allowed to leave the country in October after being detained in Iran's post-election crackdown and tried in televised court proceedings.
Iran also swiftly released five British sailors on Dec. 2 after their yacht strayed into Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.
In an interview with The Associated Press in September, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad noted that while the Americans had broken the law by crossing into Iran, he would ask the judiciary to expedite the process and to "look at the case with maximum leniency."
The three Americans 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.
Bauer and Shourd had been living in Damascus, Syria, where he was studying Arabic and she was teaching English, and both did 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, Ore., had been overseas since January as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program.
Hoping to prove that they were simply vacationing, the families released videos taken just two days before their detention, showing the three backpackers dancing and joking in an unfinished cinder block building they came across in Kurdistan's mountains. In one video, Fattal performed an impromptu rap about Iraq.
The case came at a time of rising tension between Iran and the West over Iran's nuclear capabilities and whether it was developing an atomic weapon.
The U.S. and its allies have given Tehran until the end of the year to accept a U.N.-drafted plan under which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad. Iran, which denies it intends to build a weapon, has countered with an alternate proposal to keep the material inside its territory – a scenario deemed unacceptable to the U.S.
Ahmadinejad noted last month that the United States was holding several Iranian citizens, raising concern that his government might be seeking to use the Americans in a deal.
In particular, he drew a link to the trial in the U.S. of Amir Hossein Ardebili, an Iranian who was sentenced to five years in prison Monday 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, communications equipment and Kevlar body armor. U.S. authorities targeted him in 2004 after he contacted an undercover storefront set up in Philadelphia to investigate illegal arms trafficking.
Iran is also concerned about Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist who disappeared on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Ali Reza Asghari, a former Defense Ministry official who vanished while in Turkey.
Iran has accused U.S. and Western intelligence agencies of being involved in the disappearance of both men. There was speculation, however, that the two had defected and gave the West information on Iran's nuclear program.