Iran signals US prisoner exchange could be close

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Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said he expects a prisoner swap to take place in the 'short term' [File: Atta Kanare/AFP]

US official denies claims by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian that an initial deal has been reached.

Tehran, Iran – Iran’s foreign minister has signalled that an exchange of prisoners with the United States could happen soon after he said an initial agreement has been reached on the long-standing issue, however a US official dismissed the claims as false.

“We reached an agreement in the past few days and if everything goes well on the American side, I think we will witness a prisoner exchange in the short term,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in an interview with state television on Sunday.

“An agreement was signed between us and the American side during indirect talks in March last year, but the grounds to implement it have now been prepared. In our point of view, everything is ready. The American side is engaged in its own final technical coordinations.”

But, later on Sunday, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council denied any agreement had been reached for the release of US citizens held by Iran.

“Unfortunately, Iranian officials will not hesitate to make things up, and the latest cruel claim will cause more heartache for the families of Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz,” the spokesperson said, referring to three dual Iranian-American citizens held in Iran.

The comments by Iran’s top diplomat come as his deputy, Ali Bagheri Kani, who is also the country’s top nuclear negotiator, has travelled to Oman – which has acted as a mediator between Tehran and Washington on prisoner exchange talks.

In October, 85-year-old Iranian-American Baquer Namazi left Iran onboard a Royal Air Force of Oman jet after Tehran decided to free him due to poor health.

His son, Siamak Namazi, is one of three known US prisoners left behind bars in Iran, where all of them have been arrested on espionage charges.

Earlier this week, Namazi had an interview with US outlet CNN from inside the Evin prison in Tehran, and directly implored US President Joe Biden to secure his release, along with that of 58-year-old businessman Sharghi and 67-year-old environmentalist Tahbaz – who also holds British nationality.

“I remain deeply worried that the White House just doesn’t appreciate how dire our situation has become,” he said.

Namazi, who has been imprisoned for more than seven years, had written a similar letter to Biden and went on a week-long hunger strike in January to appeal for a prisoner swap deal.

Neither side has confirmed details of a potential agreement, but it is believed that in addition to the release of an unknown number of Iranian prisoners in the US, $7bn of Iranian money frozen by South Korea due to US sanctions could also be released.

The swap deal had been previously linked with now-deadlocked talks to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers – a pact Washington unilaterally abandoned in 2018.

Iran has repeatedly blamed the US for a delay in both the prisoner exchange and nuclear deal talks, something Washington has rejected.

Amir-Abdollahian said on Sunday that Iran believes an agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal is formally known, is “within reach”, but Tehran wants ongoing issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolved as a “red line” it will not cross.

The US has maintained that the nuclear talks are currently not a priority as it accuses Tehran of supplying armed drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine, and has denounced Iranian officials for cracking down on nationwide protests that began in September.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA

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