TEHRAN - Three opinion pollsters behind a survey that showed most Iranians favour resuming dialogue with arch-enemy the United States went on trial in Tehran on Tuesday.
The three caught up in the hardline judiciary's backlash over the poll include Abbas Abdi, a top figure in Iran's main reformist party backing President Mohammad Khatami and a former leading hostage taker at the US embassy after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Also on trial is Abdi's colleague at the Ayandeh polling institute, Hossein Ghazian, and the head of the National Society of Public Opinion Studies, Behruz Gernapayeh.
The three, all wearing prison fatigues, were seen arriving at a Tehran courthouse where judge Said Mortazavi - an outspoken ultra-conservative - read out a massive list of charges.
Access to the trial was severely restricted due to a limited number of seats - which were found to have been occupied from the early hours of the morning, meaning the full list of charges was not immediately available.
However, with the charge sheet reportedly numbering 400 pages, the trial is expected to last several sessions.
The brother of President Khatami, reformist party leader Mohammad Reza Khatami, accused the judiciary of deliberately filling up the courthouse in order to prevent reformist officials and "free and independent" journalists from accessing the trial.
Conservative justice officials ordered the defendants arrested after the poll showed 74.7 percent of Iranians supported resuming dialogue with the United States.
Gheranpayeh was arrested on October 16, Ghazian on October 31 and Abdi on November 4 - the anniversary of the US embassy hostage taking. The polling institutes which carried out the survey have also been shut down.
The resumption of US-Iranian relations, cut in 1980, remains a thorny topic here where few officials dare to challenge the labelling of the United States as the "Great Satan".
The conservative Jomhuri-e Eslami paper reported in early November that Abdi was under investigation for receiving money from foreign embassies and 450 million rials (56,000 dollars) from the Washington-based Gallup polling organisation.
And Mortazavi told the hardline press that Abdi's institute had organised surveys as a means of passing on information to US intelligence and political officials. The three have also been reportedly accused of having links with armed opposition groups.
But Mohsen Mirdamadi, president of parliament's foreign affairs commission, has asserted that it was MPs who commissioned the opinion poll in a bid to kick-start debate on the issue.
The question has been thrust back to the forefront in Iran after US President George W. Bush lumped it into an "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq, and there have been reports of secret contacts over the past year between Tehran and Washington over Afghanistan and Iraq.
And on Tuesday, newspapers carried an interview with top judiciary official Mohammad-Javad Larijani-- a reformer - who lamented missed opportunities for restoring ties.
He said that during the secret 1986 visit of former US national security advisor Robert McFarlane, amid the Iran-Contra scandal, Iran "had a good opportunity to positively respond to this move by the United States, because the US wanted to establish ties with Iran".
However he was quoted as saying the moves were hijacked by Israel.