Iran will free prisoners with Western ties in Iran in exchange for billions of dollars from the United States and the United Kingdom, state television reported Sunday. The US swiftly denied the report, while the UK downplayed it.
The state TV report quoted an anonymous official just as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei began giving what authorities earlier described as an “important” speech. However, Khamenei did not immediately discuss any proposed swap amid negotiations in Vienna over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.
The official quoted by Iranian state TV said a deal made between the US and Tehran involved a prisoner swap in exchange for the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian funds. It was unclear if Tehran was expecting to see Iranians freed in the swap, or who they might be.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian state TV report.
“Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not true,” 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.”
Price did not elaborate. But Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that “unfortunately that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.”
“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.”
Tehran holds four known Americans in prison. They are Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi.
Officials in Washington did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Iranian State TV also quoted the official as saying a deal had been reached for the United Kingdom to pay 400 million pounds ($552 million) to see the release of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
British officials downplayed the report. The Foreign Office said that the country continues “to explore options to resolve this 40-year-old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing.’’ It was referring to the disputed money, which dates back to the time of the Iranian Revolution.
Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to an additional year in prison, her lawyer said, on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest in front of the Iranian Embassy in London in 2009.
That came after she completed a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.
While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who spoke to Zaghari-Ratcliffe on Wednesday, said she was 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,” he told BBC television on Sunday.
Her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, argues she is being held hostage as part of a diplomatic stratagem.
The reported deal comes as US President Joe Biden seeks to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal, which former president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. A US delegation in Vienna was taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.
The Biden administration is considering a rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions in a bid to get Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, according to current and former US officials and others familiar with the matter.