Iran rules out U.S. prisoner release as nuclear talks precondition


Dubai (Reuters) – Iran on Monday ruled out any U.S. preconditions for reviving a 2015 nuclear deal, including the release of American prisoners held by the Islamic Republic while blaming Washington for the slow pace of talks between Tehran and world powers in Vienna.

The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday the United States was unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to revive the nuclear pact unless Tehran released four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage.

“Iran has never accepted any preconditions … The U.S. official’s comments on the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran is for domestic use,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference.

Iran has been in talks with world powers since April to reinstate the deal. In 2018, then-U.S. President Donald Trump had ditched the agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Tehran, prompting Iran to gradually breach limits of the deal on its nuclear programme.

But after eight rounds of talks, the thorniest points remain the speed and scope of lifting sanctions on Tehran, including Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee of no further punitive steps, and how and when to restore curbs on Iran’s atomic work.

Iran’s state news agency IRNA said earlier on Monday that preconditions set by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley would slow down the nuclear talks in Vienna.

Iran has repeatedly said it is ready for a full prisoner exchange with the United States, which has long demanded that Tehran release U.S. citizens who it says are political prisoners.

Tehran, which denies holding people for political reasons, has accused many of the dual-nationals and foreigners in its jails of espionage. Tehran says Iranians detained in the U.S., mostly for breaking sanctions, are being unjustly held.

“Iranians held in U.S. prisons are in jail for fabricated reasons, but American nationals have been convicted in Iran,” Khatibzadeh said.

However, Khatibzadeh said Tehran and Washington can reach “a lasting agreement on both separate paths (the Vienna talks and the prisoner exchange) if the other party has the will.”

The two sides have done prisoner swaps in the past. Navy veteran Michael White, detained in 2018, returned home in June 2020 in return for the United States allowing an Iranian-American physician Majid Taheri to visit Iran. White said he contracted COVID-19 while in detention.

In December 2018, Washington and Tehran worked on a prisoner exchange in which Iran freed U.S. citizen Xiyue Wang, who had been held for three years on spying charges, and the United States freed Iranian Massoud Soleimani, who faced charges of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.

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