Iran ready for prisoner swap talks with US, citing Covid-19 threat as impetus

Iran says it is ready for unconditional prisoner exchange talks with the United States, fearing that the coronavirus would endanger the lives of prisoners, Iranian media reported on Sunday.

An Iranian news site, Khabaronline.ir, quoted cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei as saying that there was “a provision for all prisoners” to be discussed unconditionally.

“But the United States has so far refused to respond,” said Rabiei. “We hope that, as the epidemic of Covid-19 disease threatens the lives of Iranian citizens in American prisons, the American government will eventually prefer life to politics.”

Rabiei said Iran considers the US government responsible for the health of Iranian prisoners, adding that “it appears that the United States is more willing to end the situation.”

Rabiei did not give details, but Iranian media has said in recent months that there are several Iranians in detention in the United States, including Sirous Asgari, a 60-year-old university professor.

US officials said last week that they were making progress in securing the release of a navy veteran detained in Iran. But they also rejected Iranian suggestions that an exchange was underway for the imprisoned American Iranian authorities who have been trying to deport since last year.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting assistant secretary for homeland security, said Wednesday that the cases of US detainee Michael White in Iran and Asgari, the Iranian imprisoned in the United States, have never been linked. He expressed frustration at recent comments from Iranian officials that there may be a link between the two and complained that Iran had been slow to accept the return of Asgari.

Medical departures for prisoners in Iran

White, of Imperial Beach, California, was arrested in July 2018 while visiting a girlfriend in Iran. He was convicted of insulting the supreme leader of Iran and publishing private information online.

He was released from prison in March on medical leave which forced him to stay in the country. White is among the tens of thousands of prisoners who have obtained medical leave from Iran, which was one of the first countries hard hit by the spread of the coronavirus.

Trump administration officials have repeatedly stated that they consider the release of American hostages and detainees a priority.

In December, Iran released a Princeton scholar detained for three years on widely disputed espionage charges in exchange for the release of a detained Iranian scientist.

In March, the family of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran 13 years ago, said they were told by US officials that they had determined that Levinson was probably dead. Officials did not say how they arrived at this conclusion.

(AP)