Iran says prisoner swap can happen without talks

Iranian officials have reiterated calls for a prisoner swap with the US.

al-monitor US Ambassador to Switzerland Edward McMullen greets Xiyue Wang in Zurich, Switzerland Dec. 7, 2019.  Photo by US Embassy in Switzerland/Handout via REUTERS.

May 11, 2020

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said May 11 that the United States has not yet responded to calls for a prisoner swap. The day before, Hassan Rouhani administration spokesman Ali Rabiei made headlines when he said, “We have announced that we are ready to exchange prisoners without any preconditions.” He added that Iran is open to talks on the matter. 

The following day Rabiei was forced to clarify that he did not mean that Iran is ready to hold direct talks with the United States, saying, “What was presented about exchanging prisoners is the same recommendation spoken about two years ago by our foreign minister, Dr. Mohammad Javad Zarif, that we are ready to exchange all prisoners in the world, not just with America, and my comments were related to this.” Rabiei reiterated that he had said Iran was ready for a swap “without negotiations or a mediator.” 

Zarif said Iran had called for a prisoner swap in October 2018, not just with the United States, but with other countries who have been holding Iranian prisoners on behalf of the United States. He added, “When we said this then the Americans never responded and they still have not responded.” 

One of the reasons Iran made the call for a prisoner swap public again is the outbreak of the coronavirus, which Rabiei said “threatens the lives of Iranians in American prisons.” One particular person in question is Sirous Asgari, who has tested positive for COVID-19 at a Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility and is awaiting return to Iran. Asgari, a materials science and engineering professor, was charged in 2017 with trade theft but was acquitted in 2019. However, since his visa expired during his court case, he was sent to ICE custody. Zarif said that once Asgari tests negative for coronavirus he could return to Iran on the next flight.

The last prisoner exchage came in December, when Iran released Princeton graduate student Xiyue Wang and the United States freed Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani following Swiss mediation.

Many of the Iranian prisoners in the United States or being held on behalf of the United States in European countries are held for sanctions violations, which Iran says are illegal. Iran holds and has held a number of dual nationals, including Siamak Namazi, on trumped-up charges of spying. 

Iran has continued to relax restrictions meant to stem the spread of the pandemic, as new cases have increased. In the previous 24 hours, Iran registered 1,683 new cases and 45 deaths. The daily number of new cases had briefly dropped below four digits recently, but after the country reopened, new cases jumped back up. Iran’s total figure stands at 109,286 cases as of May 11.

Some cities in Iran, however, remain closed due to a high number of cases. Tehran and Qom are still under large lockdowns. The city of Abadan, in the southwest province of Khuzestan, was put under a full quarantine until May 11. All stores, offices, and banks have been ordered closed with exceptions only for essential stores. Traffic to the city from other cities have been closed and residents have been asked to eliminate all nonessential travel. 

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