US denies Iran state media report saying prisoner swap agreed

Meanwhile, UK downplays Iranian state TV report on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s possible release from prison.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi (R) and Iran's Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharib Abadi (L) leave after a JCPOA Joint Commission Iran talks meeting in Vienna on May 1 [Christian Bruna/EPA]

The United States has immediately denied a report by Iran’s state-run broadcaster that deals had been reached between Tehran and Washington that would see prisoners swapped and Tehran receive billions of dollars.

An unnamed official quoted by Iranian state TV said earlier on Sunday that a deal made between the US and Tehran involved a prisoner swap in exchange for the release of $7bn in frozen Iranian funds.

The state TV report, quoting the unnamed Iranian official, also said British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be released once Britain had paid off a debt on military equipment owed to Tehran.

A British Foreign Office official played down that report.

Iran state TV had quoted the official as saying: “The Americans accepted to pay $7bn and swap four Iranians who were active in bypassing sanctions for four American spies who have served part of their sentences.” It did not name the Iranians that Tehran sought to be freed.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian state TV report.

“Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not true,” Price said.

“As we have said, we always raise the cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will not stop until we are able to reunite them with their families.”

Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain also denied the report on the US, telling CBS’s Face the Nation that “unfortunately that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.”

“We’re working very hard to get them released,” Klain said. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time but so far there’s no agreement.”

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi, said later on Sunday the report could not be confirmed, adding that Tehran has always called for a full prisoner exchange with Washington.

Tehran holds four known Americans now in prison. They include Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, and Iranian American businessman Emad Shargi.

The reports by Iranian state television come amid a wider power struggle between hardliners and the relatively moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. That conflict has only grown sharper as Iran approaches its June 18 presidential election.

The broadcaster long controlled by hardliners has aired similarly anonymously sourced reports contradicting diplomats in Vienna trying to negotiate a return to its nuclear deal with world powers.

It was not immediately clear if Sunday’s report represented another means to disrupt negotiations by Rouhani officials or sabotage any potential negotiations with the West over frozen funds and prisoner exchanges.

No agreement for release of UK national

Iranian state television also quoted the official as saying a deal had been reached for the United Kingdom to pay 400 million pounds ($553m) to see the release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

British officials downplayed the report. The Foreign Office said the country continues “to explore options to resolve this 40-year old case and we will not comment further as legal discussions are ongoing”.

Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to an additional year in prison, her lawyer said, on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in London in 2009.

That came after she completed a five-year prison sentence in Iran after being convicted of plotting the overthrow of Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups deny.

While employed at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency, she was taken into custody at the Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, told The Associated Press news agency he was not aware of any swap in the works.

“We haven’t heard anything,” he said. “Of course we probably wouldn’t, but my instinct is to be sceptical at present.”

Earlier on Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC that he believed Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held “unlawfully” by Iran in a way that amounts to “torture”.

“I think she’s been treated in the most abusive, tortuous way,” Raab said.

“I think it amounts to torture the way she’s been treated and there is a very clear, unequivocal obligation on the Iranians to release her and all of those who are being held as leverage immediately and without condition.”

Negotiations ongoing

Last week, cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei hinted that a prisoner swap between Iran and the US may be in the works, saying the idea “has always been on the agenda” and noting the judiciary has confirmed its “readiness”.

His remarks followed that of the foreign ministry spokesman who suggested Tehran hopes to swing a substantial prisoner swap as part of ongoing negotiations in Vienna. A similar swap accompanied the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Tehran is now negotiating with world powers over both it and the US returning to its 2015 nuclear deal, which saw it limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

As the negotiations continue, Iranian negotiators there have offered encouraging comments, while state TV quoted anonymous sources striking maximalist positions.

That even saw Abbas Araghchi, the Iranian deputy foreign minister leading the talks, offer a rebuke on Twitter last week to Iranian state television’s English-language arm, Press TV.

“I don’t know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but s/he is certainly not ‘informed’,” Araghchi wrote.

Source: News Agencies