Gibbs backtracks on Ahmadinejad 'elected' remark

The welfare of three Americans reportedly arrested at the Iran border remained murky Wednesday as the White House sought to clarify its view on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presidency.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs referred to Ahmadinejad, who was sworn in for a second term Wednesday, as "the elected leader" during Tuesday's press briefing in a response to a question about Ahmadinejad's legitimacy.

The statement reignited the controversy over the Obama administration's stand on the disputed June 12 presidential elections in Iran, where the incumbent Ahmadinejad was quickly declared the landslide winner, sparking mass protests in support of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Police reportedly battled protesters chanting "Death to the dictator" outside the swearing-in ceremony in Tehran on Wednesday.

On Air Force One on Wednesday, Gibbs backtracked while noting that Ahmadinejad's inauguration is "a fact." Regarding the "elected" part, Gibbs said, "That's not for me to pass judgment on.

"Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that and we'll let them decide that," Gibbs told reporters. "But I would simply say he's been inaugurated and we know that is simply a fact."

Meanwhile, facts remained unclear in the disappearance of three Americans — Shane Bauer, 27, Joshua Fattal, 27, and Sarah Shourd, 30 — from the Iranian border with Iraq's Kurdish region on Friday.

Iran's state-run Al-Alam television network reported that security forces detained the three Americans on Friday for illegally crossing the border. The hikers also reportedly phoned a friend back at their hotel to say that they had been surrounded by Iranian forces.

On Tuesday, an Iranian security official told the same network that the three were being interrogated. The State Department, meanwhile, said it was working through Swiss envoys to confirm the detention of the Americans.

And a hardline Iranian lawmaker told Al-Alam that the trio were being investigated for espionage. "Surely we can say that they came as spies," said Mohammad Karim Abedi. "The concerned authorities will decide whether they were spies or not. If it is proven that they were spies, the necessary legal procedures will be sought against them."

Abedi said it was an effort by the U.S. to keep tabs on Iran as American forces pulled out of Iraq.

Seemingly setting the stage for espionage charges, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency ran a story Tuesday claiming that the CIA and Mossad were actively operating in Iraq's Kurdish provinces and attempting to convert the populace to Christianity.

On Wednesday, though, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman told state radio that the detention of the three Americans could not be confirmed.

"There have been contradictory and vague reports on their arrest in Iran," Hassan Qashqavi said. "I cannot confirm or deny the arrests until further investigation."

Kurdish officials, however, said that their investigation revealed that the Americans were indeed tourists who mistakenly crossed the unmarked border, and called on Iran to release the trio. The Kurds have been actively promoting the safer northern region of Iraq as a business and tourist destination.

The three Americans all had attended the University of California at Berkeley. Two had been working as journalists in the Middle East and Africa.