Three Americans hikers who have been imprisoned in Iran after claiming they accidentally strayed into the country have been accused of espionage, judiciary officials told ABC News today.
U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton again called for their release, saying there was "no evidence whatsoever" that they were spying on the Islamic Republic.
Sara Shourd, Josh Fattal, and Shane Bauer are being held in Tehran after allegedly crossing into Iran July 31 while hiking along its porous border with Iraq. Tehran Prosecutor-General Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi alleged the three entered the country to carry out acts of espionage, Iran's PressTV reported today.
A source close to negotiations over the release of the three hikers told ABC News that Iran had intended to free them in September, ahead of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York for the U.N. General Assembly. The plan was disrupted when two Iranians vanished in Saudi Arabia and Georgia, disappearances Iran believed were the result of kidnappings by the U.S.
"I had been told they would be released, and I delivered that message to the National Security Council," said the source, who wished to remain anonymous. "Then Iran got seriously upset that while it was trying to open up and be nice, the U.S. would hunt Iranian targets. That was the turning point."
Before the charges were handed down supporters of Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal had announced worldwide vigils marking the 100th day of their detention. The three have met with Swiss diplomats, who represent U.S. consular interests in Tehran and have passed messages between the detainees and their families.
"I know you are fighting for me and it makes me proud. I am hanging in there with you," said Sarah Shourd.
In September the mothers of the three detained hikers spoke out on "Good Morning America," apologizing for their children and saying that if they did cross the border into Iran they did so accidentally.
"We respectfully ask with humility to bring our children back. We miss them," said Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, addressing Ahmadinejad. "We know he's a father, too, so he can understand the absence and the hole this has left in our heart."
The source involved in the case called today's announcement of the espionage charge a "very serious development," though he does not believed the detained hikers will be harmed.
"Iran is trying to increase the stakes with these three people… they are looking for an exchange," he said.
The announcement comes at a time of high diplomatic tension between the U.S. and Iran, as Western powers wait for a response from the Islamic Republic on a proposed nuclear deal. The arrangement would have Iran swap the majority of its low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods, which are harder to use in building a nuclear weapon.
Talks on the nuclear proposal have stalled after Iran missed an initial deadline for a response. Whether a deal is reached will impact the course of President Obama's policy of direct engagement with the Islamic Republic.