Tehran is ready for a full prisoner exchange with the United States, according to a spokesman for the Iranian government.
“We are prepared to discuss this issue without any preconditions but the Americans have not responded yet,” Ali Rabiei was quoted as saying by the Khabar Online news website on Sunday.
“We hope that as the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease threatens the lives of Iranian citizens in the US prisons, the US government eventually will prefer lives to politics.”
Rabiei said Tehran considers Washington responsible for the health of the Iranian prisoners, adding “it seems the US has more readiness to bring the situation to an end”.
Rabiei did not elaborate but Iranian media in recent months said there are several Iranians in US custody, including Sirous Asgari, a 60-year-old university professor.
A senior US official, who was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “There has been no offer and no offer of direct talks.”
Last week, US officials said they were making progress in efforts to secure the release of Michael White, a detained Navy veteran in Iran. But they were also pushing back on Iranian suggestions that a swap was in the works.
Hillary Mann Leverett, CEO of the think-tank Stratega and a former US diplomat, noted the Iranian professor imprisoned in the US has been infected with the virus.
“No mechanism has been made for him to have medical furlough. He’s really in a dire state. He’s been acquitted and there’s no reason why the United States needs to hold him,” she told Al Jazeera.
White has been released from prison on medical furlough but has not been authorised to leave Iran, she said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is the most important thing happening here. But I will say there are more and more indications here in Washington that maybe there is some warming in the relationship,” said Mann Leverett, noting the US decision to remove Patriot missiles from Saudi Arabia, and tweets from Iran’s supreme leader suggesting “negotiation is a good thing to do”.
“So there’s some speculation here that there’s more going on behind the scenes. But I’ve seen no actual evidence of that,” she said.
The US has more coronavirus infections and deaths of any country in the world, with at least one detainee held in immigration custody dying last week. Iran, meanwhile, has the deadliest recorded outbreak in the Middle East and has so far temporarily freed about 85,000 people from jail in emergency measures.
In a rare act of cooperation, the two countries swapped prisoners in late 2019 – US graduate student Xiyue Wang, detained for three years on spying charges, and imprisoned Iranian stem-cell researcher Massoud Soleimani, accused of violating sanctions.
The exchange in December last year was facilitated by the Swiss government.
“There is no need for a third country to mediate between Iran and America for the prisoner exchange,” Rabiei said on Sunday, according to Khabar Online.
US-Iran tensions have escalated since 2018 when US President Donald Trump exited a landmark nuclear deal negotiated between Tehran and world powers.
Since then, Washington has stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at forcing Iranian officials to return to the negotiating table to discuss a new agreement that also encompasses the country’s ballistic missiles programme.
The punishing financial measures have crippled Iran’s economy, triggering nationwide protests in November last year, but Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has ruled out new talks with Washington until Trump lifts the sanctions.