Iran claims prisoner swap with US imminent; Washington calls it a ‘cruel lie’

Iranian foreign minister asserts ‘everything is ready’ for exchange for three US citizens held in country’s prisons; Washington says remarks are ‘false’

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets with his Qatari counterpart in the capital Tehran, on January 29, 2023. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets with his Qatari counterpart in the capital Tehran, on January 29, 2023. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Iran’s top diplomat claimed Sunday that a prisoner swap was near with the US, though he offered no evidence to support his assertion. The US immediately dismissed his comments as a “cruel lie.”

At least three US citizens are held in the country’s prisons, according to Iran’s judiciary and the US State Department.

“We have reached an agreement in recent days regarding the exchange of prisoners between Iran and the United States,” Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian told state broadcaster IRINN.

The deal had been “signed and approved indirectly” since March 2022, he added in the televised interview, saying the “American side is making its last technical arrangements” ahead of implementation.

“In our opinion, everything is ready,” the minister said.” If everything goes well on the American side, I think we will witness the exchange of prisoners in the short term.”

Amir-Abdollahian has made similar comments in the past about possible deals with the US on frozen assets abroad and other issues that never came to fruition. Some of those remarks have appeared aimed at shoring up domestic support during the mass protests challenging Iran’s theocracy and supporting the country’s troubled rial currency.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian speaks in Moscow, Russia, August 31, 2022. (Maxim Shemetov/ Pool Photo via AP)

Reached by The Associated Press, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the comments “another especially cruel lie that only adds to the suffering of their families.”

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

A separate statement from the White House’s National Security Council also called the remarks “false.”

“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,” the council said, naming the three Americans known to be held by Tehran on widely disputed espionage charges.

The evidence against them has never been made public. The detainees all have dual US-Iranian citizenship, something Tehran does not recognize.

In recent days, however, Namazi was allowed to conduct an interview with CNN from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison — something that would not have happened without the acquiescence of security forces.

Namazi, a 51-year-old Iranian-American businessman held in Tehran since 2015, was blocked from leaving the country during a visit and later sentenced to 10 years in jail on charges of collaborating with a foreign government.

This undated photo shows Baquer Namazi, left, and his son Siamak, in an unidentified location. (Babak Namazi via AP)

He denies the accusations, which US officials have called groundless. His father Mohammad Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official, was arrested in February 2016, when he went to Iran to try to free his son.

Baquer, under house arrest since 2018, had his sentence commuted in 2020, and was finally granted permission to leave the country for medical treatment in October.

Iran long has taken prisoners with Western passports or ties to use in negotiations with foreign nations. At least 16 Western passport holders, most of them dual nationals, are detained in the country.

Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-American who also holds British nationality, was arrested alongside other environmentalists in January 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in jail for “conspiring with America.”

Iranian-American venture capitalist Emad Sharqi was sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges, Iranian media reported in 2021, saying he was captured trying to flee the country.

Karan Vafadari, an Iranian-American member of the Zoroastrian minority faith, was arrested in June 2016 on allegations of spying and released on bail in July 2018. He is still unable to leave Iran.

Iran’s judiciary reported in August “dozens” of Iranian nationals had been detained in the United States, including Reza Sarhangpour and Kambiz Attar Kashani, who are accused of having violated US sanctions against Tehran.

Earlier Sunday, Iran’s judiciary confirmed a death sentence for a Swedish-Iranian dissident for “terrorism,” over two years after his disappearance at an airport in Turkey.

Habib Chaab has been held in Iran since October 2020, after he vanished during a visit to Turkey and was put on trial in Tehran. Chaab, who was found guilty on charges of “corruption on earth” and the formation of a rebel group, was sentenced to death on December 6.

ToI staff contributed to this report.

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