Iran ready for more prisoner swaps with US, not negotiations

Iran’s Cabinet spokesman says his country is ready for more prisoners swaps with the United States but reiterated the Iranian leadership's stance that there will be no other negotiations between Tehran and Washington

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran is ready for more prisoner swaps with the United States, the Cabinet spokesman said Monday even as he reiterated the Iranian leadership's stance that there will be no other negotiations between Tehran and Washington.

The remarks by the spokesman, Ali Rabiei, were the first after a prisoner exchange over the weekend saw Iran free a Chinese-American scholar from Princeton who had been held for three years on widely criticized espionage charges.

The scholar, graduate student Xiyue Wang, was freed in exchange for Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani who had faced a federal trial in Georgia over charges he violated sanctions by trying to have biological material brought to Iran.

“We are ready to cooperate to return all Iranians unlawfully imprisoned in the U.S.,” Rabiei told reporters at a briefing in Tehran. He said however that there will be no other negotiations with the U.S. beside this issue.

Rabiei said any further negotiations would be possible through the so-called 5+1 framework — a reference to the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany — under the condition that the U.S. first lift sanctions on Iran.

“The ball is in the US’ court,” said Iran's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a tweet later Monday. He said Iran was “fully ready for comprehensive prisoner exchange,” while attending a regional conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

Saturday's exchange was negotiated indirectly and took place in Switzerland, which looks after U.S. interests in Iran as Tehran and Washington have no diplomatic ties. The swap raised hopes of other similar actions and was seen as a rare diplomatic breakthrough between Tehran and Washington after months of tensions. But it was unclear if it would have any effect on Iranian-U.S. relations.

Crushing U.S. sanctions on Iran blocking it from selling crude oil abroad remain in place, part of President Donald Trump's maximum pressure campaign imposed following his unilateral withdraw from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers last year. Those sanctions in part fueled the anger seen in nationwide protests last month that Iranian security forces violently put down.

Amnesty International says that over 200 people were killed in the crackdown though Iran has offered no death toll or any other figures related to the unrest.

In a speech in parliament Monday, pro-reform Iranian lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri said the authorities should not have used force to serve their own interests, referring to the November protests.

“We have to find opportunities before it's too late. How can I tolerate the killing of young people as a member of parliament, and then seek re-election to represent the people?” she said. She also alleged authorities were out of touch with a changing Iranian society.

Iran’s currency, the rial, lost some 5% of its value against U.S. dollar Monday. In the Iranian capital, money exchange shops offered 135,000 rials for one U.S. dollar, having traded Sunday at about 128,000 to the dollar.

There remain other Western detainees from the U.S. and elsewhere who are held in Iran and who could be used as bargaining chips for future negotiations.

They include U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, who is serving a 10-year espionage sentence, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian with U.S. and British citizenship also initially sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Also in Iran are 83-year-old Baquer Namazi and his son, Siamak Namazi, dual Iranian-American nationals facing 10-year sentences after they were convicted of collaborating with a hostile power. Baquer Namazi now is on a prison furlough. However, the Namazis say he remains unable to leave Iran.

Former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who vanished in Iran in 2007 while on an unauthorized CIA mission, remains missing as well. Iran says that Levinson is not in the country and that it has no further information about him, but his family holds Tehran responsible for his disappearance.