US denies Iran state media report saying prisoner swop agreed

Richard Ratcliffe, husband of British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and their daughter Gabriella protest outside the Iranian Embassy in London, on March 8, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

DUBAI (REUTERS) - The United States on Sunday(May 2) denied a report by Iran's state television that the arch-foes had reached a prisoner swap deal in exchange for the release of US$7 billion (S$9.3 billion) frozen Iranian oil funds under US sanctions in other countries.

Iranian state television said on Sunday that Teheran would free four Americans accused of spying in exchange for four Iranians held in the United States and the release of US$7 billion in frozen Iranian funds.

The US government denied that an exchange was in the works.

The state TV, quoting an unnamed Iranian official, also said British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe would be released once Britain had paid off a debt on military equipment owed to Teheran.

A British Foreign Office official played down that report.

Iran and world powers are holding talks to revive the 2015 nuclear accord that Washington abandoned three years ago and reimposed sanctions on Teheran.

Iranian officials said last month that an interim deal could be a way to gain time for a lasting settlement that involved unfreezing Iranian funds blocked under US sanctions.

"Informed source says Biden administration has agreed to release four Iranian prisoners jailed for bypassing US sanctions in exchange for four American 'spies'," the Iranian state TV report said on Sunday.

"Release of Nazanin Zaghari in exchange for UK's payment of its £400 million (S$736 million) debt to Iran has also been finalised. The source also said the Biden administration has agreed to pay Iran US$7 billion," it said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price said: "Reports that a prisoner swap deal has been reached are not true".

"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 Ron Klain, White House chief of staff, also denied the report.

"Unfortunately, that report is untrue. There is no agreement to release these four Americans," Mr Klain said on CBS Face the Nation.

Teheran and the powers have been meeting in Vienna since early April to work on steps that must be taken, touching on US sanctions and Iran's alleged breaches of the 2015 deal, to bring Teheran and Washington back into full compliance with the accord.

Iran says US$20 billion of its oil revenue has been frozen in countries like South Korea, Iraq and China under the US sanctions since 2018.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking on ABC's This Week on Sunday, said no deal had been reached with Iran in Vienna.

"There is still a fair distance to travel to close the remaining gaps," he said. "And those gaps are over what sanctions the United States and other countries will roll back.

They are over what nuclear restrictions Iran will accept on its program to ensure that they can never get a nuclear weapon."

On the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, British foreign minister Dominic Raab told Times Radio earlier on Sunday : "We recognise the IMS debt should be repaid and we're looking at arrangements for securing that".

A Foreign Office official later played down the speculation on her release.

Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation charity, was freed from house arrest in March at the end of a sentence for seeking to overthrow Iran's government.

An Iranian court sentenced her last month to another year in jail, weeks after she finished the prior five-year sentence, a decision Britain called "inhumane".

She was arrested at Teheran airport in April 2016 and later convicted of plotting to overthrow the clerical establishment.

Her family and the foundation, a charity that operates independently of media firm Thomson Reuters and its news subsidiary Reuters, deny all charges against her and say she was only visiting relatives in Iran.

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