The White House has secretly been reaching out to Iran since December in an attempt to create a direct channel to negotiate the release of prisoners held by both countries, according to a new report.
The December offer to open dialog was the first U.S. diplomatic invitation to Iran on the issue under President Donald Trump, according to U.S. officials briefed on the topic. Despite at least three additional offers from Washington, Iran has refused to engage, the Wall Street Journal reports.
The outreach began during an international meeting in Vienna that was convened to discuss the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon at the time sought Iranian officials to discuss the issue of foreign detainees, including at least four American citizens currently in Iranian detention.
"We look for every opportunity we can to bring attention to the fact that we would like to see American prisoners held unjustly in Iran released and that is done through a variety of mechanisms," said Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
The State Department didn't specifically comment on the outreach, and the contact person for families of detainees at the White House National Security Council didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Journal.
The imprisoned citizens include Xiyue Wang, a naturalized American and Princeton doctoral student who was sentenced in 2016 for ten years on charges of spying during a research trip to Iran. Others include three American-Iranian citizens: Baquer and Siamak Namazi, father and son, and Karan Vafadari. Vafadari's wife, Afarin Neysari, is an American green card holder and also imprisoned.
"They [State Department] said that they had opened the door and reached out to Iran several times, but there is no response," Wang's wife, Hua Qu, told the Journal.
The White House has recently condemned Iran’s decision to go against medical advice and return Baquer Namazi, 81, to prison after he received an emergency pacemaker. Iran's medical examiner recommend a three-month leave for Namazi to obtain the necessary medical care.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had previously referred to a potential prisoner swap, noting Iranian and former employee of Iran’s mission to the United Nations Ahmad Sheikhzadeh would be a top priority for release. Sheikhzadeh was sentenced last week to three months in prison for tax fraud and evading sanctions, charges he disputed.
Iran's U.N. mission did not respond when asked how many Iranian dual nationals currently being held in U.S. prisons would be sought in negotiations.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif said in September that Iran was ready to negotiate a swap, but said at the time the U.S. wasn't engaging. Zarif did not respond to a request for comment from the Journal.
Zarif said in September, "It takes two to tango."
Cyrus Vafadari, son of Karan Vafadari, said it sounded like the United States and Iran want to get something going, but he has concerns with it coming to fruition.
"It sounds like they [Iran and the U.S.] may want to get going on this process, but they have no intention of doing it," Vafadari said.
Another Iranian official, Hamidreza Taraghi, told the New York Times the report is "old news." Taraghi, an adviser to hard-liners around Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said he has publicly spoken about U.S. attempts to initiate talks as far back as July.
He said Iran rejected the entreaties then and would continue to do so, citing disagreement over the nuclear agreement.
"In the nuclear deal, they have shown themselves as dishonest, so what is the use of new talks anyway?" he said, referring to the Trump administration's continued criticism and threats to reject the pact negotiated during the Obama administration.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert on Tuesday called "for all Americans who are being held in Iran and being held unjustly to be returned to the United States," adding "if they want to be respected by the world," they should release the American prisoners.