U.S. officials are denying reports of a coronavirus-initiated prisoner swap with Iran that could mean the return of a Navy veteran to the United States and a 60-year-old university professor to Tehran.
A spokesman for Iran’s rulers told the website Khabaroline.ir that their government is prepared to discuss a mutual prisoner release without conditions.
“But, the U.S. has refused to answer so far,” cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei said, according to the Associated Press.
A senior U.S. government official told the AP there is no prisoner trade offer on the table or even an offer to begin discussions between Washington and Tehran.
The two men being held in custody in Iran and the U.S. are California resident Michael White and Sirous Asgari. Mr. White was detained in July 2018 while he was visiting a girlfriend in Iran. He was later convicted of insulting Iran’s supreme leader and releasing sensitive information online.
Iran has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic with more than 100,000 confirmed cases. Mr. White was released from prison in March on a medical furlough that required him to remain in Iran.
Mr. Asgari was arrested by the FBI in 2013 but was later acquitted for stealing trade secrets. He has been held in indefinite custody by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy Homeland Secretary secretary, told the AP the two cases have never been linked. He said Iran had been “slow to accept Asgari’s return,” according to them.
Mr. Rabiei said it seems as if the U.S. is more willing to “bring the situation to an end” than it has been in the past, according to the AP.
“We hope that as the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease threatens the lives of Iranian citizens in the U.S. prisons, the U.S. government actually will prefer lives to politics,” Mr. Rabiei said, according to the AP.
It wouldn’t be the prisoner swap between the two countries. Iran released a Princeton University researcher in December who had been held for three years on espionage charges in exchange for the release of a detained Iranian scientist.
Ensuring the release of American detainees and hostages is a high priority for the Trump administration, White House officials told the AP.