Iran Offers Prisoner Exchange As U.S. Warns Nuclear Deal Patience May Run Out

Iran and the U.S. remain at odds over the proposed revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, with the State Department warning Monday its patience was not "unlimited" after Tehran's repeated dismissal of talks with President Joe Biden's administration.

Iran is demanding that Biden lift sanctions imposed by former President Donald Trump after he left the JCPOA in 2018, refusing to scale back its nuclear program until the measures are eased.

But the White House has said it will make no concessions until Iran curbs its nuclear activity. Still, the administration has said it is open to talks with JCPOA signatories and has rescinded United Nations sanctions that Trump claimed to have reimposed last year, though this move was disputed by the UN Security Council.

There are several areas in which the two sides could make progress as a precursor to, or element of, JCPOA revival. One is the exchange of prisoners, with at least four Americans known to still be in Iranian custody and several Iranians jailed in the U.S. on a range of charges including espionage.

Several prisoner exchanges were arranged during Trump's term, and Tehran has repeatedly said it is in favor of further deals as part of a diplomatic thaw. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in September, for example, that Iran was ready for a full exchange.

On Tuesday, Iranian government spokesperson Ali Rabiyee repeated the offer. "There is nothing new about the exchange of prisoners; We are ready to exchange all the prisoners," he told reporters in Tehran, according to the Tasnim News Agency. "If this has not happened so far, it is because of the unpreparedness of the U.S. government."

Rabiyee again demanded that Biden "return to the table of JCPOA unconditionally and not to complicate the path to diplomacy," the Mehr News Agency reported. He added: "I must remind that in the last four years it was Iran who kept the path of diplomacy open, and today it is them who should take the first step in diplomacy."

Iranian leaders argue that Trump's withdrawal from the deal and subsequent "maximum pressure" campaign make it incumbent on Biden to take the first steps towards a detente.

The Biden administration is pushing ahead in its diplomatic strategy to revive the deal, despite intransigence in Iran and opposition from conservatives in the U.S., as well as American regional allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In the meantime, Iranian allies are continuing attacks against American and allied interests in Iraq and Yemen, risking a violent escalation that could undermine plans to return to the JCPOA.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Monday that America's patience has a limit. "Our patience can't be unlimited because of the nature of this challenge," Price told reporters during the briefing. "It is the nature of this challenge, where every day that it goes unaddressed our concerns grow."

On prisoners in Iran, Price said the administration has "no higher priority than the safe return of Americans who are unjustly held—held against their will—overseas, including the Americans in Iran."

"As we have said very clearly, the Iranians know precisely where we stand on this," Price added. "We have left no doubt in their minds that we will continue to prioritize their safe and expeditious return going forward."

Iranians pictured on freedom day in Tehran
Iranians take part in a ceremony marking the 42nd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Azadi Square in Tehran, on February 10, 2021. STR/AFP via Getty Images