Speaker Of Iran's Parliament Suggests Prisoner Swap For Rezaian, Other Americans

Sep 3, 2015
Originally published on October 30, 2015 11:49 am

In a new sign that Iran might consider freeing Jason Rezaian, a powerful Iranian politician tells NPR that there are "practical" ways to liberate the Washington Post reporter and other American prisoners. He then sketched the outline of a trade.

"That's one way," Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's Parliament, tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Rezaian was arrested in Tehran more than a year ago, prompting an outcry for his release. As they negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program this year, U.S. officials called on Iran to free Rezaian, as well as three other Americans.

The possibility of a prisoner swap came up in an interview Thursday in New York, where Larijani is attending a global conference of parliamentary speakers this week. The speaker does not have direct authority over Rezaian, but he's close to those who do: His brother is the head of Iran's judiciary.

Larijani's suggestion appears to be the most direct public consideration of a trade by an Iranian official. An Iranian diplomat recently hinted at the possibility, only to dismiss it.

Here's Thursday's exchange:

Inskeep: Can you see a practical way that Iran's government could release Jason Rezaian and other Americans who've been held in Iran for months or years?

Larijani: There are practical ways of course. For example, there is a number of Iranians in prison here [in the U.S.]. Definitely for matters of this sort, one can come up with solutions. I think your politicians know about those ways.

Inskeep: There was an occasion recently with Cuba where the United States exchanged prisoners with Cuba. Is that what you're suggesting?

Larijani: That's one way. There are other ways that the judiciary systems of the two countries can come up with. It is the judiciary that has to decide about it.

The Iranian speaker's remarks contrast sharply with a recent statement by an Iranian diplomat who stated, "An exchange of Jason Rezaian is not on the agenda."

That comment by Iran's deputy foreign minister, Hassan Qashqavi, was seen as noteworthy partly because it was "the first time a high-level official has alluded to the possibility of such a trade," as The Associated Press reported.

Even as he rejected the idea of a prisoner swap, Qashqavi also noted that the U.S. is currently holding 19 "innocent people under sanctions charges" — and that Iran wants them freed.

Before he was arrested and charged with spying, Rezaian had been the Post's Tehran bureau chief since 2012; he has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Iran (which does not recognize dual citizenship status). Last month, news emerged that a verdict had been reached in his case, but it has not been announced.

In addition to Rezaian, Iran has been holding other Americans — former Marine Amir Hekmati; pastor Saeed Abedini — for several years. Retired FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007.

Larijani is a veteran of complicated international issues, having served as the head of Iran's nuclear negotiating team a decade ago.

Update at 11 a.m. ET on Sept. 4: State Department Responds

Following Larijani's remarks to NPR, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner said:

"We're not going to respond to every comment by Iranian officials, especially as it concerns our U.S. citizens. We've raised our concerns over the detained and missing U.S. citizens at a variety of levels with Iranian officials and will continue to do so. We don't have any update on Jason Rezaian's case at this time, and we continue to call for his immediate release, as well as the release of Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini, and Iran's cooperation in locating Robert Levinson."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The speaker of Iran's Parliament is suggesting a way to free Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. Ali Larijani made that suggestion to NPR News.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

He says Rezaian and other Americans accused of spying could be part of a prisoner exchange. It's the first time a senior Iranian official has publicly suggested this idea.

INSKEEP: Now, Larijani does not have direct authority over the prisoners, but the lawmaker is close to those who do. His brother leads Iran's courts. They're part of an influential family. Ali Larijani was here in New York City yesterday for a United Nations meeting, and he took our questions.

Can you see a practical way that Iran's government could release Jason Rezaian and other Americans who've been held in Iran for months and years?

ALI LARIJANI: (Through interpreter) There are practical ways, of course. For example, there are - there is a number of Iranians imprisoned here. Definitely, for such matters of this sort, one can come up with ways and solutions. I think your politicians know about those ways.

INSKEEP: There was an occasion recently with Cuba where the United States exchanged prisoners with Cuba. Is that what you're suggesting in this instance?

LARIJANI: (Through interpreter) That's one way. There are other ways that the judiciary systems of the two countries can come up with.

INSKEEP: That's Iran's speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani, in an NPR interview yesterday. Now here's how his remarks differ from those made by other Iranian officials.

MONTAGNE: Last month, an Iranian diplomat did raise the idea of a prisoner swap, only to dismiss it.

INSKEEP: Another official spoke in general terms about 19 Iranians imprisoned in the United States but did not mention a trade.

MONTAGNE: Most of the time, Iranian officials simply say the U.S. has no business asking about people in Iranian jails.

INSKEEP: Now Ali Larijani is saying the U.S. could do business with Iran so long as it's willing to trade. This was one part of a wide-ranging talk. We also discussed the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, as well as other world powers. We'll hear that part of our conversation Tuesday just as Congress prepares to vote on the deal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.