TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian-American businessman freed after more than two years in Tehran's main prison visited survivors of a deadly 2008 mosque bombing as a condition of his release in a scripted event Sunday that could carry propaganda value at home.
Iranian authorities did not immediately explain their demand for 71-year-old Reza Taghavi to pay homage in the southern city of Shiraz — and personally acknowledge an attack in which he denies having any connection. But it would fit neatly into possible Iranian attempts to squeeze multiple messages from Taghavi's release on Saturday after 29 months in custody.
It can easily score political points at home for the ruling clerics at a time when international sanctions are hurting Iran's economy.
Iran is pressing to resume talks on its nuclear program with the United States and other world powers after a yearlong standoff. The European Union's foreign affairs and security chief, Catherine Ashton, suggested last week after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that talks could be held as early as next month.
But Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has already thrown up a big hurdle — saying talks could move forward only if the West clarifies its position on Israel's undeclared, but widely suspected, nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. and allies fear Iran could use its nuclear fuel labs to eventually produce weapons-grade material. Iran says it only seeks peaceful energy-producing reactors.
Taghavi's attorney — former U.S. diplomat Pierre Prosper — said he purposely left American officials out of the negotiations to avoid having his client become a bargaining chip.
"Our strategy was to make sure that our dialogue with the (Iranian) government was between us and them," said Prosper, who held five rounds of direct talks with Iranian envoys since Taghavi was jailed.
Prosper said the talks ultimately convinced authorities that his client had no links to a rebel group blamed for the Shiraz mosque bombing that killed 14 people. Taghavi says he unwittingly gave $200 to someone with ties to the group.
Taghavi's detention drew far less international attention than the campaign to free three young Americans taken into custody last year along Iran's border with Iraq and accused of spying. One of the three, Sarah Shourd, was granted freedom last month on $500,000 bail.
Shourd's two companions, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, remain jailed and face possible trial on espionage charges. Shourd and the families of the other Americans deny they committed any crime and say they were just hiking in a scenic and relatively peaceful part of northern Iraq. They say that if the three did cross the border with Iran, they did so unwittingly.
Some conditions of Shourd's release were similar to those for Taghavi. Shourd was allowed to leave Iran only after meeting with children of an Iranian woman jailed in the United States and visiting families of Iranians held for two years by American forces in Iraq.
Taghavi — accompanied by his wife and lawyer — fulfilled his pledge to visit the site of the mosque bombing. They later met with survivors, including people who lost relatives in the attack. Iran did not immediately release video of the encounters on state TV.
"Freedom is something so good. No one can imagine. I hope everybody enjoys his freedom," Taghavi told The Associated Press in Tehran before leaving for Shiraz, about 550 miles (885 kilometers) south of the capital. He plans to return to his home in southern California on Thursday via London.
Taghavi — who regularly visits Iran to conduct business and see family — had been jailed for passing $200 to someone suspected of links to a rebel group known as Tondar, which seeks to topple the Islamic system and was implicated in the mosque bombing. In 2009, Iran hanged three men convicted of a role in the bombing.
Taghavi, who was never formally charged, denies knowingly supporting the faction. He told AP Television News that he was given the money by an acquaintance in the United States and "brought the money here without knowing anything about it."
He said his friend took advantage of his trust and that he plans to sue him.
Iran blames the United States and Britain for supporting groups seeking to destabilize the Islamic system. Both countries deny the accusations.
Taghavi said he spent part of his time in Evin prison in wards that held many detainees from the effort to crush dissent after the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Shourd and the other two Americans detained with her were also held in Evin.
Prosper, Taghavi's attorney, told the AP his client "admitted to nothing and he continues to maintain his innocence."
Iranian officials are "comfortable that he was in fact used by this organization, and comfortable that he does not pose a threat to them and that he can leave and go back to the United States," said Prosper, who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes under the administration of President George W. Bush.
Taghavi said prison authorities at Evin did not mistreat him and "didn't do anything wrong to me."
"They were kind to me, especially as I am old, and you know, they were watching carefully with me," said Taghavi.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Noel Clay said Saturday the United States welcomes the "release of Reza Taghavi from detention in Evin Prison in Iran, and are pleased that he will soon be reunited with his family."
"We urge Iranian authorities to extend the same consideration to Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, and other detained Americans by resolving their cases without delay," Clay said.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. AP's National Security Writer Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.