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World News

Iran says United States yet to respond about prisoner swap

DUBAI (Reuters) - Washington has yet to respond to Iran about a prisoner swap, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei was quoted as saying by the government’s website on Sunday, reiterating that Tehran was ready for a full prisoner exchange with the United States without preconditions.

FILE PHOTO: An Iranian national flag flutters in Tehran April 15, 2011. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

If a swap goes ahead, it would be one of very few instances of cooperation in an otherwise deeply frayed U.S.-Iran relationship, which has grown more hostile since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

“We have stated our readiness to discuss the release of all prisoners without preconditions ... but Americans have not responded yet. It seems to us that Americans are more prepared than before to end this situation,” Rabiei said, according to the government’s website Dolat.ir.

Both countries have called for the release of prisoners because of the new coronavirus outbreak. Iran is the worst hit country in the Middle East, while the United States has reported the highest number of deaths worldwide from the virus.

Three Iranian officials told Reuters last week that a prisoner swap between the two countries was in the works. Michael White, a U.S. navy veteran who has been detained in Iran since 2018, is a likely candidate to be swapped. He was released from prison in mid-March on medical furlough but remains in Iran.

“Washington is aware of our readiness and we think there is no need for a third country to mediate between Tehran and Washington for the prisoner exchange,” Rabiei said.

“However, if the American side agrees, the interest section of Iran in Washington will inform the U.S. of our views on the details, including how and when the exchange will take place.”

Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic relations shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution after hardline Iranians seized the U.S. embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. Switzerland looks after U.S. interests with Tehran.

“We are worried about the safety and health of jailed Iranians in America ... We hold America responsible for their safety amid the coronavirus outbreak,” Rabiei was quoted as saying.

It is not clear exactly how many Americans Iran may hold, but they include father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi. Several dozen Iranians are being held in U.S. prisons, many of them for breaking sanctions.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in December that Tehran was ready for a full prisoner exchange with the United States, tweeting: “The ball is in the U.S.’ court”.

In mid-March U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Tehran to free American prisoners as a humanitarian gesture because of the coronavirus.

Last December, Iran freed U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang, who had been held for three years on spying charges, and the United States released Iranian Massoud Soleimani, who faced charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The United States is set to deport Iranian professor Sirous Asgari, who was acquitted of stealing trade secrets, once he receives medical clearance to leave, U.S. and Iranian officials said on Tuesday.

Relations have grown more hostile again since 2018 when Trump exited Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers and re-imposed sanctions on Tehran that has crippled its economy. Iran has responded by gradually scaling back its commitments under the agreement.

Animosity reached historic heights in early January when top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad. Iran retaliated on Jan. 9 by firing missiles at bases in Iraq where U.S. troops were stationed.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Susan Fenton

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