WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States and Iran are in active talks on the release of prisoners, a person familiar with the discussions said on Sunday when Washington denied a report by Iranian state television that agreements had been reached.
Prisoner exchanges between the United States and Iran are not uncommon, and in recent years both countries have routinely sought the release of detainees. But any movement between the two countries is particularly sensitive, as the Biden administration appears to be restarting nuclear talks. A nuclear deal between nations in 2015 included the exchange of prisoners.
The issue erupted in public with a report in Iran on an agreement that the Islamic Republic should release American and British prisoners in return for Tehran receiving billions of dollars. U.S. officials immediately denied the report, though a person with knowledge of the discussions, who was not authorized to discuss them in public, said the talks were active, with messages sent between mediators.
It was not immediately clear whether the report represented a move by the hardline companies that ran the Iranian television station to interrupt negotiations with the West during the negotiations in Vienna on Tehran̵
Even after an initial US denial, an anchor woman on Iranian state television still repeated the message.
“Some sources say four Iranian prisoners should be released and $ 7 billion should be received by Iran in return for the release of four American spies,” the anchorwoman said. She described the alleged deal as coming because of congressional pressure on President Joe Biden and “his urgent need to show progress in the Iran case.”
But Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, later denied the report on the prisoner exchange, saying it was “not confirmed”, according to the Telegram channel of the state IRNA news agency.
“Iran has always emphasized the extensive exchange of prisoners between the two countries,” he said without elaborating.
State television did not identify the Iranians whom Tehran sought to liberate.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian television report.
“Reports that a prison swap agreement has been reached are not correct,” Price said. “As we have said, we always raise cases about Americans detained or missing in Iran. We do not stop until we are able to reunite them with their families. ”
Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS ‘”Face the Nation” that “unfortunately this report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.”
“We are working very hard to get them released,” Klain said. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there is no agreement.”
Tehran is holding four well-known Americans in prison: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi. Iran has long been accused of holding them captive by Western ties to later be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations.
Despite US denials, there have been indications that a prisoner deal may be under way, based on remarks by Iranian officials in recent weeks..
Although no formal proposal for a swap has yet been submitted to Washington officials, let alone signed by the White House, the specificity of the reports from Iran suggested that it was at least a consideration of a labor market agreement.
State TV also quoted sources as saying that an agreement had been reached that the United Kingdom would pay £ 400 million ($ 552 million) to watch the release of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
British officials dropped the report. The State Department said the country is continuing to “investigate the possibility of resolving this 40-year-old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are underway.”
Apart from the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Britain and Iran are also negotiating a British debt to Tehran from before the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to another year in prison, her lawyer said on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in London in 2009.
It came after she completed a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of the Iranian government, an accusation she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
While employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charity arm, she was taken into custody at Tehran airport in April 2016 when she returned to the UK after visiting family.
Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, told The Associated Press that he was not aware of any prey in the works.
“We have not heard anything,” he said. “Of course we probably would not, but my instinct is to be skeptical at the moment.”
Earlier on Sunday, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC he believed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held “illegally” by Iran.
“I think she has been treated in the most violent, heinous way,” Raab said. “I think it is similar to the torture she has been subjected to, and there is a very clear, unequivocal commitment on the part of the Iranians to release her and all those held as leverage immediately and unconditionally.”
The announcement from state television comes amid a broader power struggle between hardliners and the relatively moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This conflict has only grown sharper as Iran approaches the June 18 presidential election.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who pushed for the 2015 nuclear deal under Rouhani, has seen himself involved in a scandal over honest comments he made in a leaked footage. Zarif’s name has been hovered as a possible candidate for the election, something that now seems unlikely, as even Iran’s top leader has apparently criticized him.
Tehran is now negotiating with world powers over both it and the United States, which is returning to the nuclear deal, which saw it limit its uranium enrichment in return for lifting economic sanctions. However, Iran has not had direct negotiations with the United States during the talks.
As negotiations continue, Iranian diplomats there have made encouraging comments, while state television has cited anonymous sources who hit maximalist views that contradict them. It even saw Abbas Araghchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister leading the talks, last week reprimand Twitter for Iranian state television’s English-language arm, Press TV.
“I do not know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but he / she is certainly not ‘informed’,” Araghchi wrote.