False report of prisoner swap was “unspeakable cruelty” and separate from Iran nuclear talks, senior State Department official says

A false Iranian report of an agreement to release American prisoners held in Iran in exchange for sanctions relief demonstrated “unspeakable cruelty,” a senior State Department official said to reporters in a briefing on Thursday. This comes as talks to revitalize the Iran nuclear deal are scheduled to enter their fourth round this week in Vienna, Austria. 

The State Department confirmed that talks with Iran over “wrongfully” detained American citizens were ongoing and independent of concurrent talks over the Iran nuclear deal. 

This U.S. had immediately denied the existence of a prisoner swap agreement after Iranian state-media reported it on Sunday. 

“We’re doing everything we can to get our citizens home,” the senior official said. 

Although no agreement on either issue is imminent, the senior official pointed out that once Iran made the “political decision” to reenter into compliance with the JCPOA, actions to implement the agreement and verify compliance could be taken “relatively swiftly.”  

“This negotiation is not about reinventing the JCPOA but re-complying with it,” the senior official said. 

So far, the previous three rounds of talks have largely served to define what the U.S. is willing to do in terms of sanctions relief and what Iran needs to do in terms of its nuclear program to reenter into compliance. 

According to the senior official, “Iran has a pretty good idea” about the sanctions the U.S. is willing to lift – but specific sanctions won’t be confirmed until the two countries reach an agreement on the JCPOA’s implementation. 

Even though an agreement could be made before next month’s Presidential elections in Iran, there is still the possibility that the U.S. and Iran are a ways away from reentering into compliance – and that the next round of talks in Vienna could stall. 

Since negotiations began, Iran has ramped up uranium enrichment, growing ever closer to reaching weapons-grade levels, and has demanded that the U.S. lift additional sanctions that go beyond the scope of the nuclear agreement. 

Because Iran has acquired expertise in advanced centrifuges, any agreement must now account for Iran’s increased nuclear capabilities. Ultimately, it may be that the U.S. and other parties decide that Iran is “generally” compliant – “there are ways to address it,” the senior official said. 

The senior official was clear that the initial JCPOA was not sufficient and that there were additional things the U.S. and Iran had wanted and still do. Talks to build on the agreement could begin immediately after the countries returned to compliance. 

But if talks were to break down and Iran to further escalate its nuclear program, the U.S. would do everything in its power to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the senior official said. 

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