US denies Iranian claims of multibillion deal to free western prisoners

2 May 2021, 19:44

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe detained. Picture: PA

State TV suggested a deal had been reached for the UK to pay £400 million for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The US has denied a report by Iranian state-run television that deals had been reached for the Islamic Republic to release US and British prisoners in exchange for Tehran receiving billions of dollars.

It was not immediately clear if the report represented a move by the hardliners running the Iranian broadcaster to disrupt negotiations with the West amid talks in Vienna on Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal.

It also was not known if there had been ongoing negotiations with the West over frozen funds and prisoner exchanges, both of which accompanied the 2015 atomic accord.

Even after an initial American denial, a presenter on Iranian state TV repeated the announcement.

“Some sources say four Iranian prisoners are to be released and seven billion dollars (£5 billion) are to be received by Iran in exchange for releasing four American spies,” the presenter said.

She said the deal came about because of congressional pressure on President Joe Biden and “his urgent need to show progress made in the Iran case”.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, later denied the report of the prisoner swap, saying it is “not confirmed”, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.

State TV did not identify the Iranians that Tehran wanted to be freed.

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

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

Mr Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain told CBS: “Unfortunately, that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans.

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

Tehran is holding four known Americans: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi.

Iran long has been accused of holding those with Western ties prisoner to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Despite the American denials, there have been signs that a deal on prisoners may be in the works based on Iranian officials’ remarks in recent weeks.

Although no formal proposal for a swap has yet been presented to officials in Washington, the specificity of the reports from Iran suggested working-level consideration of a deal is at least under way.

State TV also quoted sources as saying a deal had been reached for the UK to pay a £400 million debt for the release of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Richard Ratcliffe with his daughter Gabriella
Richard Ratcliffe with his daughter Gabriella (Ian West/PA)

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

Last week, mother of one Mrs 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 the Islamic Republic 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 Tehran airport in April 2016 as she was returning home to Britain after visiting family.

Her husband Richard Ratcliffe told the Associated Press he was not aware of any swap.

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

By Press Association