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Detained Americans appear to 'confess' on Iranian state television

  • Story Highlights
  • Two Iranian-Americans appear and make statements on Iranian state TV
  • Program was heavily promoted and heavily edited
  • U.S. objects to detainees' being "paraded" on TV, demands their release
  • One is a think-tank scholar, the other an urban planning consultant
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iranian television Wednesday aired lengthy excerpts of what it called confessions by two jailed Iranian-Americans accused of plotting to undermine the Islamic republic, a development the U.S. State Department condemned.

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Haleh Esfandiari appears on Iranian state television.

The heavily promoted, heavily edited broadcast on Iran's IRIB television network featured scholar Haleh Esfandiari and urban planning consultant Kian Tajbakhsh, both of whom were arrested by Iranian authorities over the past few months.

In it, they appear to admit being part of a U.S.-led covert effort to undermine Iran's theocratic government.

"I was consulting with Iranian experts in Washington, D.C., and asking them for names," said Esfandiari, a 67-year-old scholar at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. "Every once in a while, I would go to Iran when I had a name. I would contact this person and set up a meeting."

The Iranian program cut between their statements and scenes of revolutions in Ukraine, Kyrgystan and the former Soviet republic of Georgia as commentators tried to link their efforts to U.S. efforts to promote change in Iran.

Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, said his wife's statement "mirrors the language that the Ministry of Intelligence has used over these last few weeks to describe the case."

He added, "I don't think she looked very well at all. She's lost a great deal of weight. She looked very pale to me."

Though their surroundings appeared comfortable, both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were being held at Evin prison outside Tehran, Iran. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Iranians have refused U.S. requests for consular visits from Swiss diplomats.

"We're appalled by the fact that these innocent people were paraded on Iranian state television," McCormack said. He said none of those held pose any threat to the Iranian regime or people, and should be allowed to return home "as soon as possible."

Washington and Tehran have not had diplomatic relations since 1979.

The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of meddling in the U.S.-led war in Iraq by supplying weapons and training to Shiite Muslim militias, and is currently holding five Iranians it accuses of aiding those efforts. Iran says the men are diplomats and that the United States raided a consulate it established in the predominantly Kurdish city of Irbil in Iraq. But the United States says the men were taken at a liaison office that lacks diplomatic status.

Esfandiari is the head of the Middle Eastern studies program at the Wilson Center. She went to Iran in late 2006 to visit her 93-year-old mother, and was prevented from leaving for months during repeated rounds of questioning by Iranian authorities before her arrest in May.

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Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, the center's director, told CNN in May that Esfandiari may have been captured because the Iranians mistakenly linked her to a $75 million U.S. campaign to promote democratic liberalization within Iran. Hamilton said Esfandiari received no money from that effort, but said the U.S. government should be more open about the fund's goals.

"If the policy of the United States government is to overthrow the government, then the Democracy Fund obviously would be viewed with a great deal of suspicion and hostility by the target government," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Jill Dougherty and Zain Verjee contributed to this report.

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