MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Washington today, President Bush strongly condemned Iran's detention of U.S. citizens and called for them to be freed, quote, "immediately and unconditionally." Three of them are in custody; a fourth has been barred from leaving the country. They are accused of promoting a revolution in Iran.

The U.S. government has no diplomatic ties with Iran, so that means friends and family of the accused Americans have had to turn to other governments for help.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Shaul Bakhash says his family is normally very private, but he has found himself talking in public more and more about his wife Haleh Esfandiari. She's a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and has been in prison in Iran since May 8th.

Mr. SHAUL BAKHASH (Haleh Esfandiari's Husband): I am concerned about Haleh's both mental and physical health because of what we know of interrogation methods at Evin Prison. And it seems to me inexcusable; she's not even allowed a visit from her mother.

KELEMEN: Esfandiari was in Iran to visit her elderly mother and was prevented from leaving back in December. Bakhash says on most nights she's allowed to call her mother but not long enough to give any real updates.

Mr. BAKHASH: These telephone calls last barely a minute. When they last a minute and a half, her mother in Tehran is ecstatic. She hangs on them so much.

KELEMEN: The president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, says he's been reaching out to about a dozen European countries as well as Arab and Asian states to seek help. He describes Esfandiari's detention as an affront to the rule of law.

Mr. LEE HAMILTON (Woodrow Wilson Center): The work she does at the center is open, non-partisan, and includes a broad range of views. Her program receives zero funding from the United States government's Democracy Fund.

KELEMEN: Hamilton says he felt the need to make that clear because he understands that the Iranians have been asking her about ties to the tens of millions of dollars the Bush administration announced it would spend on promoting democracy in Iran. Some human rights activists have called for the U.S. to be more transparent in how the money is spent. Hamilton agrees, particularly in the case of Iran, because there is so much debate about what U.S. motives are.

Mr. HAMILTON: The activities of the Democracy Fund - they should be public, they should be transparent. If that's the case, I think there would then be no pretext for calling the activities espionage or subversion.

KELEMEN: There are several other dual nationals who have been targeted by Iranian intelligence officials. Hadi Ghaemi of Human Rights Watch sees a trend.

Mr. HADI GHAEMI (Human Rights Watch): We see that as the trend toward drying up any communication with the outside world, particularly the United States. It's in the Iranian academic and scholarly circles and their counterparts outside of Iran.

KELEMEN: An urban planning expert with the Open Society Institute, Kian Tajbakhsh is also in custody in Tehran facing charges of espionage. There were two journalists who have had their passports taken - an Iranian-American woman who works with the U.S.-funded radio Farda and another woman who is a dual French-Iranian citizen. And a California man, Ali Shakeri, disappeared when he tried to leave Iran after attending his mother's funeral. U.S. officials believe he too is in custody.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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