By Humeyra Pamuk
NEWYORK (Reuters) – The United States has been reaching out to Iranian officials to discuss the fate of American nationals held in the Islamic republic, a U.S. State Department official said on Wednesday, at a time of heightened tension between the longtime enemies.
“We’ve been offering, as has the president (Donald Trump) to meet with Iranians (over the issue). We sent a letter earlier this year … (that) found its way there,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Asked if the United States had made a fresh effort to secure the prisoners’ release ahead of this week’s U.N. General Assembly gathering of world leaders, the official said: “They know where we are.” The official added that Washington’s effort has been an ongoing one.
“We do need to see a sign of goodwill; we’ve been waiting for them to return some of our hostages who should have come out under the JCPOA,” the official said, referring to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. “Decks have not been cleared from that agreement.”
Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear pact in May 2018.
Iranian officials were not available to comment on the official’s remarks.
Washington has demanded Iran release the Americans it is holding, including Iranian-American father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi; Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-American graduate student at Princeton University who was arrested in 2016; Michael White, a Navy veteran imprisoned last year; and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007.
Several dozen Iranians are being held in U.S. prisons, many of them for violating sanctions. They include Professor Masoud Soleimani, a stem cell expert who was arrested at a Chicago airport in October 2018 for allegedly attempting to export biological materials to Iran in violation of sanctions.
In June, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with U.S. permanent residency, after four years in prison. The release was a “goodwill gesture” by Tehran to cool tensions with Washington, sources told Reuters in July.
The gesture, however, was not enough for Washington, which did not pursue it. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in April in New York that he had the authority to conduct talks regarding a prisoner exchange with the United States.
Already tense U.S.-Iranian relations over Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal have taken several turns for the worse, including an attack on Saudi Arabia’s two oil facilities on Sept. 14 that Washington blames on Tehran. The United States has blacklisted Tehran’s top diplomat, Zarif.
In spite of Trump’s stated willingness to open negotiations with Tehran to de-escalate tensions, Iran’s rulers have ruled out any talks unless Washington lifts all sanctions on the country and ends the pressure.
In 2016, during the Obama administration, Iran freed five Americans in Iranian custody. In return, the United States released or dropped charges against seven Iranians in the United States. Those Iranians were almost all charged with or convicted of violating a U.S. trade embargo on Iran. Washington also agreed to drop charges against 14 Iranians living overseas.
The prisoner exchange came the same day the Iran nuclear deal was declared formally implemented.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump made a bold pledge on Iran’s prisoner-taking, saying, “This doesn’t happen if I’m president!”
Iran has detained not just Americans but also Europeans, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian aid worker employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, whose family and employer deny the charges against her.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for the immediate release of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other imprisoned dual nationals during a meeting with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York on Tuesday, a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)