0516 GMT November 19, 2019
Iran says it has given the US a list of detained Iranians whom it wants to be freed in a prisoner swap, drawing a vague public response from US officials who have sought to discuss the issue with Tehran.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi said Iran had provided the names of the detained Iranians to the US and was ready to do a trade. He did not specify who was on the list or how it was handed to Washington, with whom Tehran has no formal ties.
But Mousavi said the Iranian government believes about 20 Iranians have been detained by the US on what it considers to be "baseless" charges of circumventing US economic sanctions against Iran. He singled out one of them, Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, as a cause for concern due to ill health.
US authorities arrested Soleimani, a stem cell researcher, in October 2018 upon his arrival at a Chicago airport. He was charged with trying to export biological materials to Iran in violation of the sanctions.
Asked by VOA Persian to confirm whether it has received Iran's list for a proposed prisoner swap, a State Department spokesperson declined to comment specifically and only restated US policy, saying: The recovery of Americans detained in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a top priority for the US government.
Iran has been detaining at least four Americans for security-related offenses that their relatives and supporters have dismissed as trumped-up charges. The detainees include former US soldier Michael R. White, Chinese-American Princeton University researcher Xiyue Wang, and Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Mohammad Baqer Namazi.
A fifth American, retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, went missing in Iran 12 years ago and his family has said they believe he remains in detention there, a contention denied by Tehran.
Previously, Reuters quoted a US State Department official last month as saying Iran had received a US letter sent earlier this year seeking talks about the fate of several Americans jailed by Tehran. The unnamed official said US efforts to reach out to Iranian officials on the issue were ongoing.
The US official cited by Reuters appeared to be referring to a letter that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he received from then-US envoy for hostage affairs Robert O'Brien, who now serves as US National Security Adviser.
US news site Al-Monitor has reported that Zarif acknowledged receiving the letter while speaking to the press on an April visit to the United Nations in New York. It quoted Zarif as complaining that the letter merely asked for Iran to release the detained Americans rather than offering a deal.
A day before making those comments, Zarif told an Asia Society forum in New York that he had made an offer to the Trump administration in October 2018 to swap the detained Americans for Iranians held in the US, but heard nothing in response.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman's latest statement about sending a list of detainee names to Washington does not reflect a change in policy, according to an analyst Ali Vaez of the Belgium-based International Crisis Group. But in a VOA Persian interview, Vaez said the Iranian official's comment about the list is a sign that Tehran is raising the profile of its campaign for a prisoner swap.
In January 2016, US President Donald Trump's predecessor Barack Obama freed seven Iranians held in the US in exchange for Iran releasing four Iranian-American prisoners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.
"I know President Trump is reluctant (to do a prisoner swap), but the only solution to get these Americans back home is to engage in some quid pro quo with Iran," Vaez said.
Decades-old tensions between Washington and Tehran have escalated since last year, when Trump withdrew from a 2015 deal between world powers and Iran to limit the Iranian nuclear program in return for lifting international sanctions on the Iranian economy.