Iran's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that it could not provide details of what crimes several journalists, including a Washington Post reporter, were suspected of committing before they were arrested two weeks ago.
The Post correspondent, Jason Rezaian, 38, a U.S.-Iranian dual citizen from Northern California, was arrested July 22 with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, an Iranian national and correspondent for the National, a newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates.
Also arrested were a pair of Iranian freelance journalists, a husband and wife. The husband was subsequently released, but his spouse, Maryam Rahmanian, remained in custody. Reports suggest that at least one of the two may also hold U.S. citizenship.
The Iranian government has provided no details on why the four were arrested or any charges they may face. A brief report last month from the official Islamic Republic News Agency said that a Washington Post journalist — Rezaian was not named — had been detained for questioning and that more details would be forthcoming.
"I do not have any further explanation for what their crimes are," Marzieh Afkham, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said at her weekly press briefing Wednesday in the Iranian capital, according to the semiofficial Mehr News agency.
The arrests have drawn condemnation from free-speech advocates, press groups and human rights activists.
Many reformists and liberals view the detentions as a bid by hard-liners in the security services to undermine the administration of President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who was elected last year while advocating improved relations with the West, greater personal freedoms and fewer restrictions on free speech. His administration's efforts to forge a deal with world powers on Iran's nuclear program have enraged hard-liners.
"This is a blow to Rouhani's good faith in foreign diplomacy," said Mojgan Faraji, a pro-Rouhani journalist.
The arrests came days after Iran and six world powers agreed to a four-month extension on negotiations on a pact that could reduce international sanctions against Tehran in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear efforts.
As a journalist, Rezaian "wants to build bridges between countries," said Reza Marashi, a friend and former State Department official now with the National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group in Washington. "Unfortunately there is a small but powerful minority in Iran who prefer trying to blow up those bridges."
The paucity of information about the journalist's fate has heightened concern.
"Sadly, inexplicably, we continue to hear nothing from Iran about Jason, his wife, Yeganeh, and other detainees," Martin Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, said Wednesday in a statement. "We do not know where he is, we do not know why he is being held, and we know nothing about his health — which is a particular concern to us and his family."
Rezaian has high blood pressure and needs to take medication daily.
U.S. authorities say they have no further details about the case.
"Our focus is on doing everything possible to secure the safe return and release of Mr. Rezaian and the others detained with him," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Tuesday.
U.S. officials have requested consular access via Swiss diplomats, Psaki said, but Iran does not recognize dual nationality. That means all four will be treated as Iranian nationals.
The case has been seen by many in Iran as an embarrassment for the government of Rouhani, whose election victory over several hard-line candidates was acclaimed by reformers and liberals.
"When the security and intelligence services of any country interfere by arresting any journalist, it is not a civilized action," said Nader Karimi Juni, a political analyst who was jailed under a previous government for contacts with journalists from nations deemed hostile.
The hard-liner news media in Iran have linked Rezaian, who has served as the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent since 2012, to speculation about spying or efforts to smear Iran's reputation. Colleagues call such talk preposterous.
"Those familiar with Jason's work have remarked on his genuine desire to offer insight into Iran's culture and people, and we can imagine no good reason for him to be held," said Baron, the Post's editor. "We dearly hope that Jason, his wife and others will regain their freedom soon."
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.