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Much Talk–But Little Action–from Tehran on Possible 'Prisoner' Deal

While they have publicly floated suggestions that Tehran is interested in a possible swap of American hikers imprisoned in Iran for Iranian citizens held by the U.S. and its allies, Iranian leaders have done little to nothing through diplomatic channels to move the prisoner issue forward, according to the State Department.

While they have publicly floated suggestions that Tehran is interested in a possible swap of American hikers imprisoned in Iran for Iranian citizens held by the U.S. and its allies, Iranian leaders have done little to nothing through diplomatic channels to move the prisoner issue forward, according to the State Department.

In an appearance last week on state television, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested Iran might be willing to release three American hikers arrested last summer after apparently wandering inadvertently into Iran in return for the release of Iranians imprisoned in the U.S. "We are having talks to have an exchange if it is possible ... We are hopeful that all prisoners will be released," the Iranian leader said, according to a Bloomberg report. Bloomberg News quoted Mike Hammer, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council saying, "If President Ahmadinejad's comments suggest that they are prepared to resolve these cases, we would welcome that step. But we have not entered into any discussion with Iran about an exchange." 

But P. J. Crowley, the State Department's chief spokesman, told Bloomberg that the U.S. rejected Iranian suggestions that there was any equivalence between the hikers' plight and several convicted arms dealers who had been arrested by U.S. authorities. And on Monday, in an e-mail exchange with NEWSWEEK, Crowley said that the Iranians have not followed up through diplomatic channels on Ahmedinejad's statement.

There has been "no progress on the hikers," Crowley said, adding that Tehran has taken "no steps to try to resolve these cases stemming from last week's comments."

He also said that after making an initial inquiry late last year about arranging a visit by Iranian consular representatives to meet with a Iranian businessman sentenced to a five year U.S. prison term for trying to acquire sensitive technology, Iranian authorities have not followed up on that request. The State Department is "not aware of any consular activity. We have indicated that we are prepared to facilitate if they desire any consular access," Crowley told Declassified.

Dan Lyons, lawyer for Amir Hossein Ardebili, the Iranian imprisoned by the U.S., said that the last time he spoke with his client─which was several weeks ago─Ardebili indicated that he was keen to talk with Iranian government representatives. Because his client sought such contact, Lyons told Declassified that he had written to the Iranian Interests Section based at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington to advise them of Ardebili's interest. (The interests section in Washington is the Iranian government unit that approached the State Department last year about getting access to Ardebili).

Lyons said that so far, he had received no reply to his letter to the Interests Section. In December, Iran's "interests section" asked for access to Ardebili after the 36-year-old businessman was sent to prison by a federal judge in Wilmington, Del. The Iranian entered a guilty plea to charges of violating U.S. arms-control laws by trying to purchase American-made equipment that could be used in Iranian fighter planes and, potentially, missile-guidance systems.

As we reported, the Iranians' official request to talk with Ardebili appeared to be part of an increasingly tense confrontation between Washington and Tehran over what each side claims is the unjust detention of a number of each others' citizens. Politico foreign-affairs reporter Laura Rozen, who has been following U.S.-Iranian diplomatic sparring closely, reported late last year that Swiss intermediaries had told U.S. officials that, in response to inquiries from Washington about the release of the American hikers, Iranian authorities had put forward a list of Iranians who Tehran believes are being held by the U.S. Names on the list included Ardebili and a handful of other high-profile missing or arrested Iranians, including Majid Kakavand, an Iranian businessman held by French authorities for possible U.S. extradition in connection with the same kind of Homeland Security "sting" operation that snared Ardebili, and Nosratollah Tajik, a former Iranian ambassador to Jordan, whose extradition from the U.K. (also on export-control-violation charges prompted by a U.S.-orchestrated sting) the U.S. has been seeking since 2006.

You can read NEWSWEEK's article by the brother of one of the detained hikers here.

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