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The United States and Iran are in active negotiations on the release of prisoners, but Washington denies an Iranian state television report that deals have been closed

The United States and Iran are in active negotiations on the release of prisoners, said a person familiar with the discussions on Sunday, while Washington denied an Iranian state television report that deals had been struck.

Exchanges of prisoners between the US and Iran are not uncommon and both countries in recent years have routinely sought the release of detainees. But any movement between the two countries is particularly sensitive, as the Biden government plans to restart nuclear negotiations. A 2015 atomic agreement between nations included exchanges of prisoners.

The issue came up with a report in Iran of an agreement for the Islamic Republic to release American and British prisoners in exchange for Tehran receiving billions of dollars. American officials immediately denied the report, although a person with knowledge of the discussions who was not authorized to discuss them publicly said the talks were active, with messages exchanged between intermediaries.

It was not immediately clear whether the report represented an action by the hardliners who run the Iranian broadcaster to halt negotiations with the West amid negotiations in Vienna over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal.

Even after an initial American denial, an Iranian state TV presenter still repeated the announcement.

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“Some sources say that four Iranian prisoners will be released and $ 7 billion will be received by Iran in exchange for the release of four American spies,” said the presenter. She described the alleged deal as coming due to Congressional pressure on President Joe Biden and “his urgent need to show the progress made in the case of Iran”.

But Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, later denied the news of the prisoner exchange, saying it “has not been confirmed,” according to the state news agency IRNA’s Telegram channel.

“Iran has always emphasized the comprehensive exchange of prisoners between the two countries,” he said, without giving further details.

State TV did not identify the Iranians Tehran intended to release.

State Department spokesman Ned Price immediately denied the Iranian state TV report.

“Reports that a prisoner exchange agreement has been reached are not true,” said Price. “As we have already said, we always raise cases of Americans detained or missing in Iran. We will not stop until we can reunite them with their families. “

Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, told CBS’s “Face the Nation” program that “unfortunately, this report is not true. There is no agreement to release these four Americans ”.

“We are working hard to release them,” said Klain. “We raise this with Iran and our interlocutors all the time, but so far there is no agreement.”

Tehran has four well-known Americans now in prison: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and Iranian-American businessman Emad Shargi. Iran has long been accused of holding those with Western ties prisoner for later use as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Despite American denials, there are signs that an agreement on prisoners may be underway based on comments by Iranian officials in recent weeks.

Although no formal exchange proposal has been submitted to the authorities in Washington, let alone signed by the White House, the specificity of Iran’s reports suggests that consideration of a work-level agreement is at least in progress.

State TV also quoted sources as saying a deal was made for the UK to pay 400 million pounds ($ 552 million) to see the release of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

British authorities downplayed the report. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the country continues to “explore options to resolve this 40-year case and we will no longer comment because legal discussions are underway. ”

In addition to the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, the United Kingdom and Iran are also negotiating a British debt with Tehran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Last week, Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced to another year in prison, his lawyer said, on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system” for participating in a protest outside the Iranian embassy in London in 2009.

This happened after she served a five-year prison sentence in the Islamic Republic after being convicted of plotting to overthrow the Iranian government, an accusation that she, her supporters and human rights groups deny.

While working at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the news agency’s charitable arm, she was taken into custody at Tehran airport in April 2016 when she was returning home to Britain after visiting her family.

Richard Ratcliffe, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, told The Associated Press that he was unaware of any ongoing exchanges.

“We didn’t hear anything,” he said. “Sure, we probably wouldn’t, but my instinct is to be skeptical at the moment.”

The previous Sunday, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC that he believed that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was being held “illegally” by Iran.

“I think she was treated in the most abusive and tortuous way,” said Raab. “I think it is torture the way it was treated and there is a very clear and unambiguous obligation on the Iranians to release her and all those who are being held as a lever immediately and without conditions.”

The state TV announcement comes amid a broader power struggle between the hardliners and the relatively moderate government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. This conflict only worsens as Iran approaches its June 18 presidential election.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who defended the 2015 nuclear deal under the Rouhani government, was involved in a scandal because of frank comments he made on a leaked recording. Zarif’s name was pointed out as a possible candidate in the election, something that now seems unlikely, since even Iran’s supreme leader apparently criticized him.

Tehran is now negotiating with world powers both on it and on the US’s return to the nuclear deal, which saw it limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Iran did not have direct negotiations with the United States during the negotiations, however.

As the talks continue, Iranian diplomats have made encouraging comments, while state TV has cited anonymous sources who defend maximalist positions that contradict them. That even saw Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister who leads the talks, offer a reprimand on Twitter last week to the English-speaking arm of Iranian state television, Press TV.

“I don’t know who the ‘informed source’ of Press TV in Vienna is, but it’s certainly not ‘informed’,” wrote Araghchi.

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