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Malley: Without the release of US citizens, a nuclear deal with Iran is unlikely

U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and Barry Rosen, campaigning for the release of hostages imprisoned by Iran, sit at a table during an interview with Reuters in Vienna, Austria, January 23, 2022. REUTERS/Francois Murphy

The United States is unlikely to reach an agreement with Iran to maintain the 2015 Iran nuclear deal until Tehran frees four American citizens held hostage by Washington, according to the senior U.S. nuclear negotiator.

The news: The official, a U.S. Special Envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, reiterated the United States’ long-held position that the four people detained in Iran are unrelated to the nuclear talks. He did get a little closer to declaring that their release was a need for a nuclear deal.

  • “They’re separate and we’re pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran,” Malley said in an interview.
  • “So even as we’re conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages,” he said in Vienna, where talks are taking place on bringing Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the deal.

What happened: Hundreds of dual citizens and foreigners have been imprisoned by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards in recent years, usually on espionage and security-related allegations.

  • Rights groups have accused Iran of holding political detainees in order to gain diplomatic leverage, while Western governments have long demanded that Tehran release its nationals.
  • Tehran claims that people are being held for political purposes.

What they’re saying: Malley was speaking in a joint interview with Barry Rosen, a 77-year-old former U.S. ambassador who has been on a hunger strike in Vienna for the release of U.S., British, French, German, Austrian, and Swedish prisoners in Iran, and that no nuclear deal be made until they are freed.

  • Rosen was one of more than 50 American diplomats kidnapped in Iran between 1979 and 1981.
  • “I’ve spoken to a number of the families of the hostages who are extraordinarily grateful for what Mr Rosen is doing but they also are imploring him to stop his hunger strike, as I am, because the message has been sent,” Malley said.
  • Rosen said that he was weak after five days without eating and that he would heed such warnings.
  • “With the request from Special Envoy Malley and my doctors and others, we’ve agreed (that) after this meeting I will stop my hunger strike but this does not mean that others will not take up the baton,” Rosen said.

What’s important: Iran and the U.S. are in their ninth round of indirect discussions to get both nations back into full compliance with the historic 2015 nuclear deal. Because Iran refuses to meet with U.S. officials, others must shuttle between the two countries.

  • Iran and major powers reached an agreement that removed sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear programmes, extending the time it would take to collect enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon if it so desired. Iran claims it has no plans to develop nuclear weapons.
  • In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, reimposing harsh economic penalties on Iran. Iran retaliated by breaking several of the deal’s nuclear limits, to the point where Western governments predict that the agreement will soon be fully void.
  • Asked if Iran and the United States might negotiate directly, Malley said: “We’ve heard nothing to that effect. We’d welcome it.”
  • Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, are among the four US citizens who have been convicted of “collaboration with a hostile country.”
  • Namazi is still imprisoned. His father was freed from prison in 2018 due to medical reasons, and his term was eventually reduced to time served. Despite the fact that the elder Namazi is no longer in prison, his family’s lawyer claims he is essentially forbidden from leaving Iran.
  • The other two are British environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, and businessman Emad Shargi, 57.
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