By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2004; Page A18
UNITED NATIONS, June 29 -- The United States has expelled two Iranian security guards assigned to Iran's mission to the United Nations for suspected espionage, marking the third time in two years that American authorities have demanded the departure of Iranian guards for that reason, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The two guards were asked to leave the country after FBI agents observed them in recent weeks videotaping and photographing New York City landmarks, and also key infrastructure and transportation systems, according to senior U.S. officials. The pair voluntarily left Saturday evening, officials said.
Stuart Holliday, a deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the Iranians had "engaged in activities that are not consistent with their duties," a commonly used diplomatic euphemism for spying. "These individuals were moving around the city and essentially surveilling. This is something that obviously isn't part of protecting their mission," he said.
Although U.S. officials said that the videotaping had alarmed federal and local law enforcement agencies, they said they had no evidence that the Iranians' activities were part of planning for any terrorist activity. Holliday and other U.S. officials declined to provide details on the precise locations photographed by the guards.
The Iranian mission, and a U.N. diplomat familiar with the case, said that the two men had videotaped and filmed at New York spots that draw thousands of tourists, including Central Park, Times Square, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the annual Puerto Rican Day parade.
"The videotapes and photos they shot consisted of obvious and popular tourist attractions in New York City which are of interest to any visitors in this city," a statement from the Iranian mission said. "We categorically deny that they ever took any photos of anything of [a] security or sensitive nature. . . . It is very unfortunate that a regular sight-seeing and shooting of photos by two guards of the mission on a holiday became so contentious and controversial."
The Iranians' departure marks the most recent in a long line of foreign envoys posted to the United Nations who have been expelled for spying. In recent years, the United States has demanded the ouster of diplomats from Russia, Cuba, Sudan and Iraq.
It also reflects ongoing strain between Iran and the United States, which has been waging an international campaign to pressure Iran to scale back its nuclear programs. U.S. officials charge that Iran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, which Iran denies. The U.S. broke diplomatic relations with the Islamic state in 1979 after students took control of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days.
The United States has worked with Iranian reformists, such as Javad Zarif, the country's U.N. ambassador, to defuse tensions in Afghanistan and Iran. But the State Department includes Iran on a list of seven governments it considers state sponsors of terrorism.
Local and federal authorities in New York previously confronted Iran's U.N. guards for taking photographs in New York. The guards typically work at the United Nations for three to five months.
In June 2002, two security guards from the Iranian mission were asked to leave after they were seen videotaping the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge. In November 2003, two Iranians came under investigation by the FBI after a New York transit officer spotted them videotaping a Queens subway station. In both cases, the Iranian mission complied with U.S. demands to repatriate the guards, avoiding a formal expulsion proceeding.
"This is the third time the United States has required the departure of Iranian security guards for this kind of activity, which is inconsistent with their official duties," State Department spokesman J. Adam Ereli said Tuesday.