Australia concerned for 3 held in Iran on spying charges

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — An Australian government minister on Wednesday expressed concern for three Australians arrested in Iran on suspicion of spying and separated their plight from a tense standoff in the Middle East over the weekend attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was responding after Iran on Tuesday acknowledged for the first time that it was holding three Australian citizens, including two British dual nationals, on suspicion of espionage.

"The government continues to seek information and clarity around these matters," Birmingham told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "We are concerned for the welfare of these individuals and work to make sure their treatment is as fair as possible."

Iran confirmed the arrests of Melbourne University Middle East expert Kylie Moore-Gilbert in October and travel blogging couple Mark Firkin and Jolie King in July as fallout continues from the fiery missile and drone attack on the heart of Saudi Arabia's oil industry.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was headed to Jiddah in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to discuss possible responses to what U.S. officials believe was an attack coming from Iranian soil.

Iran denies involvement in the attack on the Abqaiq oil processing plant and its Khurais oil field, a strike that interrupted the equivalent of about 5% of the world's daily supply.

Birmingham described that attack and international reactions to it as "separate matters" from the trio's plight.

"We monitor the implications of those, but in relation to the parties ... who are detained, we have diplomatic relations in place with Iran, we continue to try to work through those channels to get the best possible outcome, the fairest possible outcome for those individuals," Birmingham said.

Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili on Tuesday as saying the three had been charged in two separate cases.

He said two Australians, likely the couple from the Australian west coast city of Perth, had been detained over using a drone to take pictures and video of military areas and other unauthorized zones.

He said the other Australian faced charges of spying for another country, without elaborating.

News of the arrests only became public in the past week, although Australian and British officials have been working behind the scenes to free the trio from Tehran's Evin prison since they were detained.

Both women are British dual nationals.

Britain and Australia last month signed onto a U.S.-led maritime security mission to protect international shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran's recent seizures of vessels has raised tensions with the West.