TEHRAN Two Iranian-Americans detained in the Islamic Republic on spying charges have "accepted that they carried out some activities", an Iranian judge was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
Judge Hossein Haddad said a third dual national, journalist Parnaz Azima, had been detained for cooperating with "anti-revolutionary" media. But a judiciary source later told Reuters she was released on bail and was not now under arrest.
The Iranian judiciary on May 29 said Azima, academic Haleh Esfandiari and social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh were accused of spying. The United States has called for their release and denied that they are spies.
Iran, which does not recognise dual nationalities, has told Washington the arrests are none of its concern.
The detentions come at a time of increased tension between Tehran and Washington over Iran's disputed nuclear programme, which Western powers suspect is a cover for building atom bombs. Iran says it wants only to generate electricity.
Iran says Washington is using intellectuals and others to carry out a "soft revolution" to topple the Islamic state. A charge of spying could carry the death sentence.
"They have accepted that they have carried out some activities but they say their aim was to help," Haddad, security deputy of Tehran's public and revolutionary court, told the ISNA news agency about the cases of Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh.
It was not clear if this amounted to an admission of spying.
A senior U.S. official said Haddad's comments were "unfortunate and do not reflect the true nature of the activities those being held were engaged in, namely, humanitarian work or to visit their parents."
Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the White House National Security Council, added at a Group of Eight summit in Germany: "These innocent Iranian-Americans pose no threat to the regime and need to be released immediately."
Haddad said Azima was accused of working with "anti-revolutionary" radio stations, including U.S.-funded Radio Farda. A judiciary source confirmed she had been detained but said she was later released on bail, without specifying when.
Esfandiari, the director of the U.S. Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars' Middle East program, was detained on May 8 while visiting Tehran. The New York-based Open Society Institute says Tajbakhsh was arrested around May 11.
Washington, which has not had diplomatic ties with Tehran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution, has said a fourth dual citizen has also been detained.
Some analysts link the Iranian arrests to the detention of five Iranians by U.S. forces in Iraq in January. Iran says the five are diplomats but U.S. officials say they were involved in supporting militants inside Iraq. Iran has dismissed any linkage between the detentions in Iraq and any other issues.
(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Tabassum Zakaria in Heiligendamm in Germany)