Iran says it has given the U.S. a list of detained Iranians whom it wants to be freed in a prisoner swap, drawing a vague public response from U.S. officials who have sought to discuss the issue with Tehran.
Speaking to reporters Monday in Tehran, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iran had provided the names of the detained Iranians to the U.S. 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 U.S. on what it considers to be "baseless" charges of circumventing U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. He singled out one of them, Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, as a cause for concern due to ill health.
U.S. 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 U.S. policy, saying: "The recovery of hostages held by the Islamic Republic of Iran is a top priority for the U.S. 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 U.S. soldier Michael R. White, Chinese-American Princeton University researcher Xiyue Wang, and Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Mohammad Bagher 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 U.S. State Department official last month as saying Iran had received a U.S. letter sent earlier this year seeking talks about the fate of several Americans jailed by Tehran. The unnamed official said U.S. efforts to reach out to Iranian officials on the issue were ongoing.
The U.S. official cited by Reuters appeared to be referring to a letter that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he received from then-U.S. envoy for hostage affairs Robert O'Brien, who now serves as U.S. National Security Adviser.
U.S. 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 U.S., 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 Iran 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.
"It's one of most important levers that the Iranians have to get the Trump administration to the negotiating table," Vaez said. "Since U.S.-Iran mediation efforts by world leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have come to naught, Iran is trying to use the prisoner card to establish a communication channel, which could evolve into a broader discussion with the U.S. about how to resolve their current standoff," he added.
In January 2016, U.S. President Donald Trump's predecessor Barack Obama freed seven Iranians held in the U.S. in exchange for Iran releasing four Iranian-American prisoners, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian.
While campaigning for the U.S. presidential election later that year, Trump criticized Obama for delivering a planeload of cash worth $400 million to Iran on the same day that it released the four Americans, calling it a ransom payment. The Obama administration said the money was previously owed by the U.S. government to Iran but acknowledged using it as leverage to win the Americans' freedom.
"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. "If the arrangement is limited to a swap of prisoners (and does not include a transfer of cash), it would be more palatable politically in Washington," Vaez added.
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. Trump criticized the deal as not doing enough to stop Iran from engaging in malign behaviors and has been tightening U.S. sanctions against Tehran ever since to achieve that goal.
Iran has vowed to resist those sanctions and retaliate for any U.S. military action against it.
This article originated in VOA's Persian Service. Cindy Saine contributed from the State Department.