DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The United States immediately denied a report by Iranian state television on Sunday that agreements had been made for the Islamic Republic to release American and British prisoners in exchange for receiving billion dollars by Tehran.
It was not immediately clear whether the report represented a move by the extremists who run Iranian TV station to disrupt negotiations with the West amid talks in Vienna over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal.
It was also unclear whether there had been ongoing negotiations with the West over frozen funds and prisoner swaps, both of which accompanied the 2015 atomic deal.
Even after an initial US denial, an Iranian state television presenter repeated the announcement.
“Some sources say that four Iranian prisoners must be released and that $ 7 billion must be received by Iran in exchange for the release of four American spies,” the presenter said. She described the claimed deal as coming because of congressional pressure on President Joe Biden and “his urgent need to show progress on Iran’s case.”
State television did not identify the Iranians Tehran sought to free.
State Department spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian state television report.
“Reports that a prisoner exchange deal has been made is not true,” Price said. “As we said, we always bring up the cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will not stop until we are able to reunite them with their families. “
The price did not specify. But Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “unfortunately this report is bogus. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.
“We are working very hard to get them released,” Klain said. “We raise this issue with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there is no agreement.”
Tehran currently holds four known Americans in prison. Among them are Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi. Iran has long been accused of holding prisoners with ties to the West to then be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.
Despite US denials, there have been signs that a detainee deal could be underway based on remarks by Iranian officials in recent weeks..
While no formal exchange proposal has yet been presented to officials in Washington, let alone endorsed by the White House, the specificity of Iran’s reports suggested that consideration of an operational-level deal is required. at least in progress.
State television also cited sources as saying that an agreement had been made for the UK to pay £ 400million ($ 552million) to see the release of Anglo-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
British officials have played down the report. The Foreign Ministry said the country was continuing “to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.”
Last week Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to an additional year in prison, her lawyer said, for spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest outside the Iranian embassy in London in 2009.
It came after serving a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic after being convicted of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, a charge she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, she was arrested at Tehran airport in April 2016 on her way home to Britain after visiting his family.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard Ratcliffe told The Associated Press he was not aware of any ongoing exchanges.
“We didn’t hear anything,” he said. “Of course, we probably wouldn’t, but my instinct is to be skeptical for now.”
Earlier on Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC he believed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held “illegally” by Iran.
“I think she was treated in the most abusive and torturous way,” Raab said. “I think this amounts to torturing the way she was treated and there is a very clear and unequivocal obligation for the Iranians to release her and all those who are being held as leverage immediately and unconditionally.”
The state television announcement comes amid a wider power struggle between extremists and the relatively moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This conflict has only worsened in the run-up to Iran’s June 18 presidential election.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who lobbied for the 2015 deal under Rouhani, has been embroiled in a scandal over outspoken comments he made in a leaked recording. Zarif’s name was thrown as a potential candidate for the election, which now seems unlikely as even Iran’s supreme leader has apparently criticized him..
Tehran is currently negotiating with world powers on both itself and the United States to revert to its 2015 nuclear deal, which allowed it to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. However, Iran did not conduct direct negotiations with the United States during the talks.
As negotiations continue, Iranian diplomats offered encouraging comments, while state television quoted anonymous sources hitting maximalist positions contradicting them. It even saw Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister leading the talks, offer a reprimand on Twitter last week to Iran’s English-language state television channel, Press TV.
“I don’t know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but he / she is certainly not ‘informed’,” Araghchi wrote.
Lee reported from Washington. Associated Press editors Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Danica Kirka in London contributed.