Iran has softened its tone about whether the release of the US prisoners held in the Islamic Republic is negotiable while taking a tougher stance on the possibility of Washington walking away from a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif suggested in an interview with CBS News aired on Sunday that a prisoner swap could be negotiated if the US dropped its “regime change” rhetoric.
He said Iran wants to see “respect” before considering entering any talks about prisoners with the administration of US President Donald Trump.
“You do not engage in negotiations by exercising disrespect for a country, for its people, for its government by making claims, including this illusion about regime change.”
The US administration has openly said in the past that its policy towards Iran is to support “elements” inside the country “that would lead to a peaceful transition” of the Iranian government.
Trump has also indicated that he wants to fill key roles within his administration with figures who have been outspoken advocates of such a stance.
‘Learn how to treat other sovereign nations’
There are at least five prisoners, four Americans of Iranian descent and a US-Chinese dual citizen, imprisoned in Iran, all on national security charges.
There have been concerns over the health of octogenarian Baquer Namazi, a former UNICEF representative who was arrested in 2016 and underwent heart surgery later in 2017.
Zarif said despite Iran’s judiciary being an independent body, the government had been “trying to use our influence from a humanitarian perspective, first of all, to make sure that the health requirements are taken care of; as well as to see whether a humanitarian agreement can be reached”.
Trump is under pressure from the families of those in Iranian prisons as they see no sign of effective efforts leading possibly to the release of the detainees despite the US president’s campaign promise.
The US government did try in December 2017 to negotiate the issue with Tehran through a direct channel. However, Iran turned down what Zarif refered to in his recent interview as a “demand”, adding that before making it the US needed to “learn how to treat other sovereign nations”.
For the centrist government in Iran, which is dealing with a financial crisis shortly after getting past rare nationwide unrest, the survival of the 2015 nuclear deal is seemingly of much greater concern than the security threat intelligence and judiciary at home see in the Americans they have held in prison.
Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to put back in place the sanctions that were removed as part of the pact.
Analysts believe such a move might kill the deal altogether, especially now that Iran indicates it might accelerate its uranium enrichment if the US pulls out.
“We have put a number of options for ourselves, and those options are ready, including options that would involve resuming at much greater speed our nuclear activities,” Zarif said in part of the CBS interview that was aired on Sunday.
“Those options are envisaged within the deal and those options are ready to be implemented and we will make the necessary decision when we see fit.”
Iran had said in the past that it will stay in the deal in case of US withdrawal.
French President Emmanuel Macron also said Sunday in a Fox News interview that there is no “plan-B” for the deal that he will try to persuade the US to preserve during a three-day state visit starting Monday.
Saeed Jalili contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran