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Iran wants nationals freed from US jails amid nuclear talks

Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal which incensed authorities in Iran
Nasser Karimi, Associated Press

Iran is seeking the release of all Iranian prisoners held in the US amid talks in Vienna meant to bring the two sides back into the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei also hinted that another exchange of prisoners between Iran and America was possible, saying “the idea of a swap of prisoners has always been on the agenda” and they should be released because of “humane concerns”.

He did not offer details on how many Iranians are held in the US and claimed that releasing their names could harm them, but he said “their number is bigger than that of American prisoners in Iran”.

In 2019, a prisoner exchange saw Iran free a Chinese-American scholar from Princeton who had been held for three years on widely criticised espionage charges. At the time, Tehran said American authorities were holding about 20 Iranian nationals in jail.

Iran has at times expressed readiness for prisoner swaps with the US. When they do take place, the exchanges are seen as rare diplomatic breakthroughs between Tehran and Washington.

On Tuesday, Mr Rabiei said the Iranian judiciary has also voiced “readiness” for a swap. It was the second statement by Iranian officials on a possible prisoner release in less than two weeks.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh last week made comments suggesting Tehran hoped to swing a major prisoner swap as part of negotiations in Vienna. A similar swap accompanied the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Iranian media have in recent days identified seven Iranians in US custody by name while the US regularly asks Iran to release American prisoners, including Siamak and Baquer Namazi, who are serving 10-year prison sentences on spying charges.

Siamak Namazi, a 46-year-old businessman who promoted closer ties between Iran and the West, was arrested in October 2015. His 81-year-old father Baquer, a former Unicef representative who served as governor of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province under the US-backed shah, was arrested in February 2016, after he was apparently drawn to Iran over fears about his incarcerated son.

Also among Americans held in Iran is environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian with US and British citizenship also initially sentenced to 10 years in prison.

There are other Western nationals in Iranian custody, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman who after serving a five-year prison sentence on spying charges has been sentenced to a sixth year in prison for spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in London in 2009.

Iran does not recognize dual nationalities, meaning those detained cannot receive consular assistance. The two Namazis, like other dual nationals, faced secret charges in closed-door hearings in Iran’s Revolutionary Court, which handles cases involving alleged attempts to overthrow the government.

As nuclear talks get under way in Vienna following a brief break, Tehran has been insisting the US lifts all sanctions imposed under Donald Trump after he pulled America out of the nuclear deal, including those not related to its nuclear programme.

Washington has said Iran needs to comply with all restrictions imposed under the deal. In response to Mr Trump’s withdrawal, Iran has gradually violated the terms of the accord, including limits on uranium enrichment.

Washington has not been at the table for the Vienna talks, but an American delegation is in the Austrian capital and representatives of the other powers have been shuttling between it and the Iranian delegation.

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