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US Starts Talks with Iran Over Return of at Least 5 American Hostages

FILE - National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington.
FILE - National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the United States has started talks with Iran over the return of at least five American hostages whom Tehran is holding.

In an interview on CBS News' "Face the Nation" show, Sullivan said that it was a "significant priority" of President Joe Biden's administration to get the Americans "safely back home" and that it was a “complete and utter outrage” that they were being held.

"We have begun to communicate with the Iranians on this issue," Sullivan said.

"We will not accept a long-term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful manner," he said, calling it a "humanitarian catastrophe."

Iran is holding dozens of dual nationals, including the five Americans, mostly on espionage charges.

Even with the hostage discussions, Sullivan said no talks have begun with Tehran about the U.S. rejoining the 2015 international pact to restrain Iran’s nuclear development program, which Iranian officials maintain is for peaceful purposes and not the development of nuclear weapons.

Biden said Friday that the United States was driven to “reengage in negotiations” to revive the pact that former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.

“We need transparency and communication to minimize the rise of strategic misunderstanding or mistakes,” Biden said at the virtual Munich Security Conference.

But Sullivan said, "Iran has not yet responded" to overtures to renew nuclear talks.

“It’s Iran that is isolated now diplomatically, not the United States, and the ball is in their court,” he said.

Earlier Sunday, however, Iran said the U.S. will not be able to rejoin the nuclear pact before it lifts economic sanctions against Tehran. Washington says Tehran must first return to compliance with the 2015 accord and cut the level of its uranium enrichment.

The back-and-forth between Washington and Tehran came as Rafael Grossi, the head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, met with Iranian officials to try to maintain his inspectors' ability to monitor Tehran's nuclear program.

After the talks, the U.N. group struck a deal to continue necessary verification and monitoring activities, but the deal also calls for less access and no more snap inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said the cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency would be shut off despite Grossi's visit in order to comply with a law passed by the Iranian parliament.