BAGHDAD – The Iraqi foreign minister said Sunday that he was hopeful that three Americans detained in Iran after crossing the border from northern Iraq will be released soon
Iranian border guards detained freelance journalist Shane Bauer and his companions Sara Shourd and Josh Fattal on July 31 while they were hiking near a waterfall on a mountain in Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region.
U.S. and Kurdish officials say the Americans accidentally entered Iran through poorly marked border territory, but the Iranians have indicated they were looking into possible espionage charges.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who met last week with the Iranian ambassador to Iraq, said he believed the case only involved allegations of illegal entry and he was optimistic the Americans would be released.
“We made an intervention on their behalf with the Iranian government to provide information and to release them,” he said Sunday in a telephone interview. “I am hopeful, but I haven’t received any formal confirmation.”
The comments came as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser James Jones said Iran has confirmed it has the three Americans in custody in the first official word on their detention.
The U.S. State Department has dismissed the spying allegations.
Shon Meckfessel, a companion who had skipped the outing because he was ill, has said the three Americans had set up camp near a place called Ahmed Awa, which is famous for a beautiful waterfall, but later called to tell him they had been detained and urge him to call the U.S. Embassy.
A prominent Iranian lawmaker and member of parliament’s National Security Committee, Mohammad Karim Abedi, has rejected the suggestion the Americans were tourists and said authorities were investigating whether to charge them with espionage.
He compared the matter with a case involving British military personnel seized by Iran in March 2007 after Tehran said they had entered Iranian waters from Iraqi territory. The 15 sailors and marines were held for nearly two weeks, and some were paraded on Iranian television to deliver supposed confessions of trespassing.
American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was convicted of espionage before being released on an appeal in May.
The case is the latest source of friction between Washington and Tehran, which are locked in bitter dispute over Iran’s nuclear program. The two countries have had no diplomatic ties since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took Americans hostage for 444 days.
The detentions also have put Iraq in an uncomfortable position because it needs to balance the interests of its two main allies, the United States and Iran.
Zebari said the Iraqis felt compelled to raise the issue because the Americans had crossed the border from their territory, he added.
Iran and Iraq share an 800 mile (1,280 kilometre) border over which there have been long-standing disagreements. The frontier is poorly marked, particularly in the mountainous Kurdish region.
The Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. interests, has been trying to learn more about the status of the Americans through its contacts with the Iranian Foreign Ministry.