NEW YORK: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined on Thursday to discuss the possibility of a US-Iranian prisoner swap after the United States deported an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to exporting restricted US technology to Iran.
“So, I never talk about sensitive issues as you described there,” Pompeo told reporters in New York when asked about Negar Ghodskani, whose lawyer said she was deported on Tuesday, and whether he expected Iran to soon release a detained US doctoral student.
At a separate news conference in New York, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tehran was open to talking about prisoner swaps but that the ball was in Washington’s court after Iran’s release of a Lebanese man with US permanent residency in June.
Pompeo and Rouhani were in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering of world leaders.
The United States and Iran are at odds over a host of issues, including the US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, US accusations — denied by Tehran — that Iran attacked two Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14 and Iran’s detention of US citizens on what the United States regards as spurious grounds.
According to the Justice Department, Ghodskani pleaded guilty to conspiring to buy export-controlled US technology, send it to Malaysia and then on to Iran. Federal court documents show that she was sentenced on Tuesday to 2-1/4 years time served.
Xiyue Wang, a US citizen and Princeton University graduate student, was conducting dissertation research in Iran in 2016 when he was detained and accused by Iran of “spying under the cover of research,” a claim his family and university deny.
He was subsequently convicted on espionage charges, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
US officials typically do not discuss such cases in public. Brian Hook, the US State Department’s special representative for Iran, on Monday said that if Iran wanted to show good faith, it should release the US citizens it has detained, including the Princeton graduate student.
“We spent time this week, we spend time nearly every day working to release the Americans and others who are detained wrongfully inside of Iran. We will continue to do that,” Pompeo said.
Washington has demanded Iran release Americans it is holding including Wang, Iranian-American father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi; Michael White, a Navy veteran imprisoned in 2018; and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007.
Rouhani said Tehran is open to talks about prisoner exchanges, saying at his news conference, “We have always shown goodwill in the issue of prisoner swaps.”
Rouhani pointed to the release in June of a Lebanese citizen with US residency who was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of spying for the United States.
“After his release, Americans thanked us but failed to reciprocate. Therefore, the ball is in the American’s court now,” Rouhani said.
In June, Iran released Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman with US permanent residency who had been in prison for four years, in a gesture meant as an opening for US-Iranian talks, according to three Western sources familiar with the issue.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced on Thursday it was restricting entry into the US for senior Iranian government officials and members of their families.
“For years, Iranian officials and their family members have quietly taken advantage of America’s freedom and prosperity, including excellent educational, employment, entertainment, and cultural opportunities in the United States. Under this proclamation, designated senior regime officials and their families will no longer be allowed entry into the United States,” the State Department issued in a statement.
The State Department cited Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Arabian Gulf region, their support for the Houthi militia in Yemen and other Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria
“No longer will elites reap the benefits of a free society while the Iranian people suffer under the regime’s corruption and mismanagement (and) the Government of Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” which contributes to regional instability and humanitarian crises in these countries.
“America will no longer allow senior Iranian regime officials or their family members to continue to travel to the United States while their people suffer,” said Pompeo.