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Biden urged to secure release of hostages in Iran in nuclear deal talks

White House says prisoner negotiations remain separate from nuclear talks, but ongoing diplomacy provides an opportunity to push for their release
The Biden administration has entered into negotiations to seek a return to the nuclear deal, and a seventh round of indirect negotiations are expected to take place soon in Vienna.
The Biden administration is expected soon to begin a seventh round of indirect negotiations in Vienna over a return to the nuclear deal (AFP)

US advocates seeking the release of four Americans detained in Iran are hoping negotiations to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal will provide an opportunity for the prisoners to return home.

Hadi Ghaemi, executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, said the nuclear talks presented an opening for the US and European participants to the 2015 nuclear accord, which include the UK, France and Germany, to secure the release of detained citizens. 

Ghaemi noted that it "appears that we are following the same pattern this time", referring to the prisoner exchange that took place in 2016, in which the Obama administration secured the release of four Americans from Iran as the nuclear deal was implemented.

White House says US in talks with Iran over detained Americans
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"It would really be unconscionable to imagine a nuclear deal signed between, especially European and American governments involved, and their hostages in Iran not released," he told The Hill.

The imprisoned US nationals include business consultant Siamak Namazi and his 84-year-old father Baquer, enviromental conservationist Morad Tahbaz, and businessman Emad Sharghi.

Advocates for Namazi and his father have said the two men have been held in harsh conditions, including solitary confinement, little access to needed medical care, and torture.

Congressman Ted Deutch, who has been advocating on behalf of the family of Robert Levinson, a former CIA agent understood to have died in Iranian capitivity, said the ongoing negotiations taking place in Vienna "have to be viewed as our best opportunity" in securing the release of detained Americans in Iran, as well as for returning Levinson's remains to his family.

"The family deserves so much more than that, but clearly this is something that needs to happen," he told The Hill.

Levinson is a former intelligence official that the US believes died in Iranian custody following his 2007 disappearance in the country.

Prisoner release a 'priority'

Biden administration officials have said the release of Americans detained in Iran was a major priority, however, work on that front is separate from ongoing nuclear negotiations.

Still, officials noted the meetings in Vienna presented a major opportunity to push firmly for their release.

A senior State Department official, speaking with reporters last week after the latest round of talks, said the US had made progress on efforts to release the Americans - but cautioned "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

"It is a priority, and we are absolutely insistent that the four American citizens who are wrongfully detained be released," the official said.

"Regardless of what happens with the [nuclear deal], we want our detainees, our citizens, wrongfully held citizens, back home as soon as possible."

Former US President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear pact, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018, and reimposed harsh sanctions, prompting Tehran to start violating some of the nuclear limits in 2019.

The Biden administration has entered into negotiations to seek a return to the deal, and a seventh round of indirect negotiations are expected to take place soon in Vienna.

Officials in Tehran have also said they are seeking the release of Iranian prisoners in the US, and raised the prospect of a prisoner swap amid the nuclear talks in Vienna.

"The idea of a swap of prisoners has always been on the agenda," Iranian Cabinet spokesman Ali Rabiei said in April, adding that the number of Iranians detained "is bigger than that of American prisoners".

At least 13 Iranians are in US detention on proven or alleged federal crimes, according to a report by Voice of America in May.