This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
U.S., U.K., and Iranian officials have all dismissed or otherwise downplayed unconfirmed reports out of Iran that suggested deals had been struck to swap prisoners against the backdrop of high-profile nuclear talks over Iran’s nuclear activities.
The United States said reports of an agreement to exchange prisoners and free up billions in Iranian assets were “not true,” while British officials avoided linking a U.K. national’s case to current talks, and an Iranian envoy said a U.S. exchange was “not confirmed.”
The renewed focus on Westerners held in Iran emerged a day after the parties to a 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran wrapped up a third round of tense talks on May 1 focused on bringing the United States and Iran back into full compliance with the deal.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on May 2 said that dual British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held in Iran since 2016, is being held “unlawfully” and “being treated in the most abusive” way.
“I think it amounts to torture the way she’s being treated, and there is a very clear, unequivocal obligation on the Iranians to release her,” Raab told BBC television on May 2.
Raab spoke by telephone with former charity worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe on April 28, days after her lawyer announced that she had been sentenced to another year in prison in Iran for spreading “propaganda against the system.”
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was already serving a five-year sentence for plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters, and rights groups deny.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has accused Tehran of holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe as a diplomatic ploy.
Iranian state TV on May 2 quoted an anonymous source as saying a deal had been agreed for the United Kingdom to pay hundreds of millions of pounds for the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
The 400 million pound ($552 million) sum mentioned seems to correspond to a British debt to Tehran that predates Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The Foreign Office responded to the report of a possible swap by saying Britain continues “to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.”
The claims of a prisoner swap appeared in Iranian media in the hours before a nationally broadcast speech by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he made no mention of such a deal.
Later, Iran’s envoy to the United Nations was quoted by a state-affiliated website called the Young Journalists Club as saying such news was “not confirmed.”
“The news of the agreement for the release of American prisoners [in Iran] is not confirmed,” the website quoted envoy Majid Takht Ravanchi as saying.
The U.S. State Department denied the reports suggesting a deal including a prisoner swap had been made between Washington and Tehran.
“Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not true,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said. “As we have said, we always raise the cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will not stop until we are able to reunite them with their families.”
The unsourced reports said four Iranians and “four American spies who have served part of their sentences” would be traded and $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds released.
Even after the U.S. denial, an Iranian anchorwoman on state TV told viewers that “some sources say four Iranian prisoners are to be released and $7 billion are to be received by Iran in exchange for releasing four American spies.”
Iran is known to be holding at least four Americans: father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, and entrepreneur Emad Shargi.
U.S. President Joe Biden has stated his aim of rejoining the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal his predecessor Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 to reimpose sanctions on Iran.
Biden’s chief of White House staff, Ron Klain, told CBS on May 2 that “unfortunately” the report of a swap was “untrue.”
“We’re working very hard to get them released,” Klain said. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there’s no agreement.”