TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian authorities have arrested a 55-year-old American woman — reportedly with a microphone hidden in her teeth — on suspicion of spying, local media reported Thursday.
U.S. officials could not immediately confirm the report. But if true, the woman would be the fourth American Iran has detained and accused of spying in less than two years.
The state-owned newspaper IRAN said the woman — identified in Farsi as Hal Talaian — had “spying equipment or a microphone” concealed in her teeth when customs authorities detained her in the border town of Nordouz, 370 miles (600 kilometers) northwest of the capital Tehran.
The report said she arrived in Iran from neighboring Armenia without a visa. The paper did not say when she was detained.
But Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying the woman was taken into custody “about one week ago.” Fars also said she told Iranian border guards that her life would be in danger if they sent her back to Armenia.
In Washington, an official at the State Department said the U.S. has reached out to the Swiss, who represent American interests in Iran, to look into the reports. But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said “right now we can’t even confirm she is an American citizen.”
Armenian authorities had no immediate comment on the reported arrest.
The case, if confirmed, would be only the latest point of confrontation between Iran and the United States.
In July 2009, Tehran detained three Americans — Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal — along the Iraqi border. Initially, Tehran accused them of illegally crossing into Iran, but later added espionage charges, although authorities have given few details to support the accusations.
The U.S. has dismissed the spying charges. It says the three are innocent hikers and has repeatedly called for their release. The Americans’ families have said the three were hiking in Iraq’s largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border at all, they did so unwittingly.
Iranian authorities released Shourd in September on compassionate grounds on $500,000 bail. Her fiance, Bauer, and their friend, Fattal, remain in prison and could go on trial next month. They could face up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.
Iran has suggested in the past that the Americans in its custody could be traded for Iranians held in the U.S., raising concerns that the Americans are to be used as bargaining chips as the two countries face off over issues like Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
The U.S. and its allies fear Iran’s civil nuclear program is cover for the development of atomic weapons. Tehran denies the allegations, and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.