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In a volte-face, US delinks prisoners’ release from JCPOA revival talks

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley stands near a 'no stopping' sign in Vienna, Austria, on June 20, 2021. (Photo by AP)

The United States says the release of American prisoners by Iran is not a precondition for its return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, just a day after US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley said an agreement in Vienna would be unlikely unless Iran releases the prisoners.

In an interview on Sunday, Malley reiterated Washington’s long-held position that the issue of the four American citizens imprisoned in Iran is separate from the negotiations in the Austrian capital to restore the US-abandoned pact. But at the same time, he suggested that their release was a precondition for an agreement in Vienna.

“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,” he said.

Talks have been underway for almost ten months in Vienna to revive the Iran deal, officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), following the US withdrawal from the multilateral agreement in 2018 in pursuit of a confrontational policy against Tehran.

Pushed to clarify Malley’s remarks, US State Department spokesman Ned Price made clear that there is no “direct or explicit linkage” between the two cases.

“The special envoy also made the point that these issues are operating on separate tracks, and they’re operating on separate tracks for a very simple reason: A mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is at best an uncertain proposition,” Price said during a press briefing on Monday.

“It would not serve our purposes, it would not serve their interests, to tie their fates to a proposition that I said before is uncertain at best,” he said.

Further pressed on whether what he and Malley said amounted to setting a precondition for the talks, Price said, “Again, it is not the case that there is any direct or explicit linkage precisely because a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA is at best an uncertain proposition. We want the return of these Americans to be a certain proposition, and so we are keeping these issues separate.”

Price’s comments came hours after his Iranian counterpart asserted that the Islamic Republic has not accepted any preconditions from the onset of the Vienna talks.

“Such issues are simply intended for the domestic audience and media use,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a press conference in Tehran, reacting to Malley’s remarks, advising the Americans not to further complicate the already complex negotiations.

Khatibzadeh then pointed to the grave situation of Iranian citizens that are being held hostage inside America, stating that Tehran has either directly or indirectly raised the issue with the US on multiple occasions.

“The matter has been on our agenda both before and after the talks. The case with Iranian and US citizens, however, is of different nature. This humanitarian issue can be resolved in the shortest possible time if the United States adheres to the agreements it has already made,” he noted.

He also said that “unlike our citizens who have been taken hostage in the United States under the false pretext of circumventing illegal US sanctions against the Iranian nation, those imprisoned in Iran have been found guilty of their crimes by the Judiciary, and necessary legal procedures have been conducted by competent courts of law.”

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