U.S., Iran trade allegations over possible prisoner swap

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The Biden administration‘s push for diplomacy with Iran hit a fresh roadblock over the weekend, with the two sides trading blame over the apparent breakdown of a prisoner swap that’s likely to delay the restart of long-stalled nuclear talks.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman claimed Sunday that the prisoner swap was in the works, despite denials by the Biden administration of an agreement on such an exchange.

“‘Outrageous’ = the US denying simple fact that there IS an agreed deal on the matter of the detainees. Even on how to announce it,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tweeted.

The comment came hours after a Biden administration spokesman said Iran was the one being “outrageous” by accusing the United States of delaying a prisoner swap in order to force a resumption of stalled nuclear talks.

In remarks reported Saturday by The Associated Press, State Department spokesman Ned Price denied there was even an agreement on a swap, saying only that the administration was prepared to continue talks about prisoners while waiting for the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Mr. Price said the Iranians were engaged in “an outrageous effort to deflect blame for the current impasse on a potential mutual return to compliance” with the Obama-era nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The deal has been faltering since former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of it in 2018, a move Tehran responded to by carrying out its own violations of the deal. 

Mr. Price’s comments on Saturday came after a pair of tweets from chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyyed Abbas Araghchi.

Mr. Araghchi claimed indirect nuclear talks that have been taking place recently in Vienna cannot resume until Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi formally takes office in early August.

He also claimed that the United States and the United Kingdom had agreed to prisoner swap with Iran, but were  delaying it by trying to make it contingent on the resumption of the nuclear talks.

The nuclear talks “await our new administration. This is what every democracy demands,” Mr. Aragchi said, adding that the U.S. and Britain “need to understand this and stop linking a humanitarian exchange — ready to be implemented — with the JCPOA.”

“TEN PRISONERS on all sides may be released TOMORROW if US&UK fulfill their part of deal,” the Iranian negotiator wrote.

There had been no news of a swap having taken place as of Sunday evening Iran time.

The latest back-and-forth signals ongoing difficulty for President Biden’s pursuit of talks toward restoring the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that Trump critics say was hastily trashed by the former president.

The nuclear deal delivered billions in sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for limits to and United Nations inspections of — Iranian nuclear activities.

Tehran claims its nuclear program is peaceful but there has long been consensus among U.S. and European intelligence officials that the program is geared toward building nuclear bombs in repeated violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Throughout the nuclear negotiations, the State Department has kept Iran listed as state sponsor of terrorism, publishing annual reports that outline Tehran’s support for terrorist activities around the Middle East.

With regard to reports of a possible U.S.-Iran prisoner swap, Reuters noted over the weekend that Iran is holding a handful of Iranian-Americans and has been accused by rights activists of arresting dual nationals to try to extract a concession from other countries — a charge Tehran dismisses.

Iranian officials claim they are pushing for the release of release of Iranian prisoners being held in American and other jails for violating U.S. sanctions.

Reuters noted that in May, the Biden administration denied a report by Iranian state television that the countries had reached a prisoner swap deal in exchange for the release of $7 billion in frozen Iranian oil funds under U.S. sanctions in other countries.

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