Skip to main content

US offers cautious response to Zarif call for prisoner swap

The State Department's measured response to Iran's call for a prisoner swap is a departure from its "maximum pressure" campaign against the country.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sits for an interview with Reuters in New York, New York, U.S. April 24, 2019.   REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RC1B01849850

WASHINGTON — Responding to a proposal by Iran’s foreign minister for a prisoner swap, the State Department today urged Iran to release unjustly detained Americans immediately, but did not wholly reject Zarif’s proposal.

“I put this offer on the table publicly now: Exchange them,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today at the Asia Society in New York.

“We believe their charges are phony,” Zarif said, referring to Iranians imprisoned in the United States and on US extradition requests, mostly for alleged violations of US export restrictions and sanctions violations. “The United States believes charges against these people in Iran are phony."

Iran has imprisoned several Americans, including Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his father Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF official; Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang; Michael White, a US Navy veteran; and Lebanese-born US green card holder Nizar Zakka. Iran has also not provided information on the whereabouts of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing on Kish Island in 2007.

“Let’s have an exchange,” Zarif said. “I am ready to do it and I have the authority to do it.”

The State Department in a statement did not outright denounce Zarif’s remarks, and said it advocated for a humanitarian resolution to the case of US citizens detained in Iran. But it said Iran should immediately release the Americans wrongfully detained first, and said any Iranians detained in the United States have been indicted or convicted of violating US laws.

“We are aware of Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent comments to a NGO in New York regarding wrongfully detained Americans in Iran,” a State Department spokesperson told Al-Monitor in a statement. “We note his reference to a humanitarian resolution of those cases, which we have called for repeatedly.” 

“The Iranian regime can demonstrate its seriousness regarding consular issues, including Iranians who have been indicted or convicted of criminal violations of US sanctions laws, by releasing innocent US persons immediately,” the State Department statement continued. “We call on Iran to free all unjustly detained and missing US persons, including Xiyue Wang, Robert Levinson, Siamak Namazi and Nizar Zakka, among others.”

The more measured tone on Iran from the State Department is a departure from recent language the Donald Trump administration has used to describe its “maximum pressure” campaign — most recently in the announcement Monday that the Trump administration will not renew sanctions waivers for eight countries to continue imports of Iranian oil. Key European allies saw the latest US action as an attempt to pressure Iran to quit the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Zarif said Iran had proposed a prisoner swap to the Trump administration six months ago, but had received no response.

The State Department statement did not confirm or deny if the administration had received such a proposal.

Join hundreds of Middle East professionals with Al-Monitor PRO.

Business and policy professionals use PRO to monitor the regional economy and improve their reports, memos and presentations. Try it for free and cancel anytime.

Already a Member? Sign in


The Middle East's Best Newsletters

Join over 50,000 readers who access our journalists dedicated newsletters, covering the top political, security, business and tech issues across the region each week.
Delivered straight to your inbox.


What's included:
Our Expertise

Free newsletters available:

  • The Takeaway & Week in Review
  • Middle East Minute (AM)
  • Daily Briefing (PM)
  • Business & Tech Briefing
  • Security Briefing
  • Gulf Briefing
  • Israel Briefing
  • Palestine Briefing
  • Turkey Briefing
  • Iraq Briefing

Premium Membership

Join the Middle East's most notable experts for premium memos, trend reports, live video Q&A, and intimate in-person events, each detailing exclusive insights on business and geopolitical trends shaping the region.

$25.00 / month
billed annually

Become Member Start with 1-week free trial
What's included:
Our Expertise AI-driven

Memos - premium analytical writing: actionable insights on markets and geopolitics.

Live Video Q&A - Hear from our top journalists and regional experts.

Special Events - Intimate in-person events with business & political VIPs.

Trend Reports - Deep dive analysis on market updates.

Text Alerts - Be the first to get breaking news, exclusives, and PRO content.

All premium Industry Newsletters - Monitor the Middle East's most important industries. Prioritize your target industries for weekly review:

  • Capital Markets & Private Equity
  • Venture Capital & Startups
  • Green Energy
  • Supply Chain
  • Sustainable Development
  • Leading Edge Technology
  • Oil & Gas
  • Real Estate & Construction
  • Banking

We also offer team plans. Please send an email to and we'll onboard your team.

Already a Member? Sign in

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the Middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial