TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's judiciary said yesterday that a detained Iranian American academic was being investigated for "security" crimes, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for her immediate release in a rebuke of the Islamic regime.

Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, has been held for a week at Tehran's Evin Prison. She came to Iran months ago to visit her 93-year-old mother and was prevented from leaving.

The judiciary's announcement yesterday was the first official word on an inquiry into Esfandiari, a U.S. resident since 1980.

Asked about Esfandiari's detention, Rice said she "ought to be released immediately."

"It just underscores the nature of the Iranian regime, and it just gives strength to the argument that the regime does not, in addition to all of the problems that it causes internationally, does not treat its people . . . very well," Rice told reporters in Moscow.

Over the weekend, the hard-line newspaper Kayhan said Esfandiari was accused of spying for the United States and Israel and had formed networks to overthrow the Iranian government.

Her husband, Shaul Bakhash, called the accusations "fantasies" and "untrue."

Judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said Esfandiari was being investigated for "security" crimes, but did not give specifics.

Esfandiari, 67, has for years brought prominent Iranians to Washington to talk about the political situation in Iran, some of whom have been later detained and questioned back home. Her defenders say some of those she brought to the United States were supporters of the Iranian government who sought to explain Tehran's stance to Americans.

Esfandiari had been trapped in Iran since December, when three masked men with knives stole her luggage and passport as she headed to the airport to leave the country, the Wilson Center said.

Iran Lawmakers' Olive Branch

A group of Iranian lawmakers wants to create a "friendship committee" that would

open contacts with the U.S. Congress - an unprece- dented attempt to build ties at a time when Iran's hard-line leadership also appears willing to talk with the country's No. 1 enemy.

Proponents hope the effort, for which they were gathering petition signatures yesterday, will be condoned by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah

Ali Khamenei, who has final say in national matters.

Contacts between the countries have long been taboo, a status enforced by Iran's top leadership - made up of Shiite clerics - since the U.S. cut ties with Iran after the 1979 seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

- Associated PressEndText