WASHINGTON - Iran is one of the world's worst offenders in allowing women to be sold into the sex trade, the United States said today in a rebuke that may cloud US efforts to negotiate over Tehran's nuclear program.
In an annual report on trends involving up to 800,000 victims of human trafficking worldwide, the State Department downgraded Iran into its worst category, which includes only 12 nations assessed to have done little to stop the trade.
The report cited how a 16-year-old girl trafficking victim in the Islamic republic was publicly hanged for having sex outside of marriage in a case where the local governor praised religious authorities for their "firm approach."
"We have received a number of reports that Iran imprisons or executes a significant number of trafficking victims," said John Miller, head of the State Department trafficking office.
But he said it was difficult for the United States to collect accurate information in Iran because diplomatic relations have been severed.
Miller acknowledged the rebuke could affect Iran's deliberations as it decides whether to take up a US offer to negotiate with Washington and European powers to curb its nuclear programs. But the two issues were unrelated for the United States, he said.
"We are concerned about human rights in Iran. We always have been and we are going to be concerned about human rights in Iran no matter what happens on the nuclear issue," he said.
The United States is leading an international drive to stop what it believes is Iran's pursuit of an atomic bomb. Tehran, an oil exporter, says it needs peaceful nuclear power to satisfy its growing population's energy demands.
Countries criticized in such US reports typically complain of hypocrisy and human rights groups say Washington has lost credibility in issuing rebukes because of abuse scandals involving Americans, like one at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
This year, for the first time, the annual report acknowledged that the United States had paid contractors in Iraq who were later found to have committed widespread abuse of laborers hired from abroad.
Rights groups and diplomats also say US blacklists sometimes appear politically motivated.
Friendly countries with major trafficking problems such as India, which has reached a nuclear cooperation deal with the Bush administration, avoided being placed in the worst category despite congressional pressure.
But US antagonists, like Syria - which was also downgraded this year - North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are in the worst category for human trafficking and are typically rebuked in other annual reports such as on terrorism.