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Iran, US make conflicting claims on prisoner swap

March 12, 2023

Iran says "everything is ready" for a prisoner swap with the US. Washington denies Tehran's claim, labeling it a "cruel lie."

Iran's notorious Evin Prison outside Tehran
At least 16 Western passport holders are known to be detained in Iran, which has been accused of holding them hostageImage: gozarehgar

Tehran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Sunday told Iran's ISNA state news agency that if "everything goes well" a prisoner exchange between Tehran and Washington could take place in the next few days.

"We have reached an agreement in recent days regarding the exchange of prisoners between Iran and the United States. In our opinion, everything is ready," the diplomat said.

Amirabdollahian said the exchange agreement had been "signed and approved indirectly" last year.

In Washington, however, US State Department Spokesman Ned Price vehemently denied the veracity of the claim, calling it "another especially cruel lie that only adds to the suffering of the families" of those detained in Iran.

Price said the US is "working relentlessly to secure the release of the three wrongfully detained Americans in Iran," adding, "We will not stop until they are reunited with their loved ones."

How has Washington reacted to Tehran's claims?

A statement released by the White House Security Council labeled Tehran's claims "false."

The statement also named three US citizens currently detained in 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 Shargi and Morad Tahbaz."

Iran's claims come two days after Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who has been in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison since 2015, was allowed to give an interview to US cable news outlet CNN.

Namazi was barred from leaving the country, convicted of collaborating with a foreign government and jailed. He denies the accusation, which the US calls "groundless." 

Namazi's father, Mohammad Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official, was also arrested by Iran when he traveled there to help his son. In October 2016, both men were sentenced to 10 years each on espionage charges. The elder Namazi, however, was allowed to leave Iran in October 2022 for medical reasons.

Does Iran regularly arrest Western passport holders?

Iran regularly arrests individuals with dual citizenship, often charging them with espionage without providing evidence and then jailing or executing those individuals after closed-door trials that international rights organizations call unfair, accusing Iran of holding foreign nationals prisoner.

If jailed, these individuals are later used as bargaining chips during international negotiations.

At least 16 Western passport holders, most dual nationals, are currently known to be imprisoned in Iran.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court of Iran upheld a death sentence against Swedish-Iranian dissident Habib Farajollah Chaab, who is accused of being linked to an Arab separatist group that attacked a military parade in 2018, killing 25 people.

Has Iran made similar claims before?

Sunday's claims were not the first of their kind. Amirabdollahian himself has repeatedly announced "agreements" that never came to pass.

Such comments seemed aimed at a domestic audience as the country reels from protests and economic hardship.

An actual prisoner swap would potentially indicate movement in the frozen negotiations between the archenemies over Iran's international status after the US withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

Ali Bagheri Kani, for instance, the deputy foreign minister who led JCPOA talks with the US, UK, China, Russia, France, Germany and the EU, was reported to have traveled to Oman Sunday. The desert sultanate has long operated as an interlocutor facilitating dialog between Iran and the US. 

EU politicians 'sponsor' Iranian political prisoners

js/fb (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)