WASHINGTON, (Reuters) – Iran has detained a fourth Iranian American, California businessman Ali Shakeri, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday, calling his arrest part of a “disturbing pattern” of harassment of dual citizens. “He has also been taken into custody by Iranian officials,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters, saying he believed Shakeri had been detained about 10 days ago and was being held in Tehran’s Evin prison.
Shakeri is the fourth Iranian American to be detained, imprisoned or otherwise barred from leaving Iran in recent months in a series of incidents that U.S. diplomats fear may herald a further deterioration in U.S.-Iranian relations.
The other three — academic Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh and journalist Parnaz Azima — have been charged with spying, a charge which could carry the death sentence under Iran’s sharia law.
The United States has denied the three are U.S. spies and demanded their release, saying that they are private citizens who went Iran to meet family and have ordinary professional contacts.
Tehran accuses Washington of using intellectuals and others inside the country to undermine the Islamic Republic through what it calls a “velvet revolution.”
Esfandiari’s husband, Shaul Bakhash, told a news conference he was worried about the health of his wife, who is also being held in Evin prison. Esfandiari is the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington think tank.
“I am concerned about Haleh’s both mental and physical health because of what we know of the interrogations methods at Evin prison. Clearly our level of concern and anxiety is very high,” Bakhash said. He also said Citibank briefly had frozen his wife’s bank accounts, apparently in the belief that she had become an Iranian resident as a result of her imprisonment, but that the matter had been resolved on Wednesday.
“What we are seeing is a disturbing pattern on the part of the Iranians of efforts to harass these innocent people,” Casey said, adding he was aware of media reports Shakeri had been, or was on the verge of being, charged but could not confirm them.
Separately, the State Department issued a warning to its citizens about travel to Iran, citing the recent detentions and urging Americans of Iranian origin to “consider the risk of being targeted by authorities before planning travel to Iran.”
Last week the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California at Irvine, an institute that seeks to promote peace and where Shakeri serves on an advisory board, said he was in Iran and had not been heard from since March.
The United States, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution and the taking of hostages at the U.S. Embassy there, is embroiled in disputes with Tehran over its nuclear program and its suspected support for the insurgency in Iraq.
Iran says its nuclear program is not to produce atomic bombs, as the United State suspects, but rather to generate electricity so it can export more oil and gas. It has also denied U.S. accusations it is fueling the violence in Iraq.
Despite the disagreements, the United States and Iran held their most high-profile talks in three decades in Baghdad on Monday. The talks focused on Iraq’s sectarian violence and did not touch on issues like Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Lee Hamilton, president of the Wilson Center, said he hoped the United States would raise Esfandiari’s case at any future meetings with Iranian officials. While not ruling this out, Casey suggested any U.S.-Iranian talks about Iraq would remained focused on that country and not include other issues.