- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 3, 2010

TEHRAN | Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday proposed a swap of Iranians in U.S. prisons for three American hikers being held in Tehran.

In a television interview, Mr. Ahmadinejad also said Iran was ready to send its uranium abroad for further enrichment as requested by the United Nations, signaling a major shift in the Iranian position on the issue.

He said Iran will have “no problem” giving the West its low-enriched uranium and taking it back several months later when it is enriched by 20 percent. The time frame still falls short of the one year required by the Western nations.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said there were ongoing negotiations about exchanging the U.S. hikers for several Iranians jailed for years in the United States.

“There are some talks under way to have an exchange, if it is possible,” he said. “Recently they (the U.S.) have sent messages, we answered to bring them (the Iranians), to bring these people (the hikers). We are hopeful that all prisoners will be released.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad did not mention any specifics but in December Iran released a list of 11 Iranians it says are being held in the U.S. — including a nuclear scientist who disappeared in Saudi Arabia and a former Defense Ministry official who vanished in Turkey. The list also includes an Iranian arrested in Canada on charges of trying to obtain nuclear technology.

“I had said I would help in releasing them, but the attitude of some of U.S. officials damages the job,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “There are a large number of Iranians in prison in the U.S. They have abducted some of our citizens in other countries.”

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region in July when they accidentally crossed the border into Iran, their families have said.

The State Department responded cautiously.

“We have made clear that what we want is consular access to our citizens in Iranian custody. If President Ahmadinejad’s comments suggest that they are prepared to grant us access through the Swiss and resolve the cases of the three hikers and other Americans in custody, we would welcome that step,” State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said.

Iran’s foreign minister said in late December that the three would be tried in court, but he did not say when a trial would begin or what the three would be charged with other than to say they had “suspicious aims.” Earlier, the country’s chief prosecutor said they were accused of spying.

When the list of 11 Iranians came out State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it appeared the Iranian government was trying to suggest some kind of equivalence between the hikers and Iranians that had left Iran.

“There really is no equivalence at all,” he said at the time.

On the nuclear issue, it is not clear how much of a concession Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments represented, even though he appeared to be saying for the first time that Iran was willing to ship out its enriched uranium and wait for it to be returned in the form of fuel for its Tehran research reactor.

But his time frame of four or five months appeared to fall short of the year that Western officials say it would take for Iran’s enriched fuel to be turned into fuel rods for the reactor.

Mr. Ahmadinejad also did not address whether his country was ready to ship out most of its stockpile in one batch — another condition set by the six world powers endorsing the fuel swap.

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