The US and Iran are in active talks over the release of prisoners, a person familiar with the discussions said on Sunday, as Washington denied a report by Iranian state-run television that deals had been struck.
Prisoner swaps between the US and Iran are not uncommon and both countries have in recent years routinely sought the release of detainees.
However, any movement between the two nations is particularly sensitive as US President Joe Biden’s administration looks to restart nuclear talks. A 2015 atomic accord between the two nations included prisoner exchanges.
The issue burst into public view with a report in Iran of a deal for the Islamic republic to release US and British prisoners in exchange for Tehran receiving billions of dollars.
US officials immediately denied the report, but a person with knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to discuss them publicly said talks are active, with messages passed between intermediaries.
It was not immediately clear if the report represented a move by the hard-liners running the Iranian broadcaster to disrupt negotiations with the West amid talks in Vienna on Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal.
Even after an initial US denial, an anchorwoman on Iranian state TV still repeated the announcement.
“Some sources say four Iranian prisoners are to be released and US$7 billion are to be received by Iran in exchange for releasing four American spies,” the anchorwoman said.
She described the claimed deal as coming due to congressional pressure on Biden and “his urgent need to show progress made in the Iran case.”
However, Iranian ambassador to the UN Majid Takht-e Ravanchi denied the report of the prisoner swap, saying that it is “not confirmed,” according to the Telegram channel of state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
“Iran has always emphasized the comprehensive exchange of prisoners between the two countries,” he said, without elaborating.
State TV did not identify the Iranians that Tehran sought to be freed.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian state TV report.
“Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not true,” Price said. “As we have said, we always raise the cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will 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, that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.”
“We’re working very hard to get them released,” Klain said. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there’s no agreement.”
Tehran holds four known Americans now in prison: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi.
Despite the US denials, there have been signs that a deal on prisoners might be in the works based on Iranian officials’ remarks in recent weeks.
Although no formal proposal for a swap has yet been presented to officials in Washington, let alone been signed off on by the White House, the specificity of the reports from Iran suggested that working-level consideration of a deal is at least under way.
State TV also quoted sources as saying a deal had been reached for the UK to pay ￡400 million (US$554 million) to see the release of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
British officials played down the report.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the UK continues “to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.”
Aside from Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case, the UK and Iran also are negotiating a British debt to Tehran from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to an additional 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.
That came after she completed a five-year prison sentence in Iran after being convicted of plotting the overthrow the government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
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