Pompeo Has No Comment on Possibility of U.S.-Iran Prisoner Swap

By Humeyra Pamuk and Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK, Sept 26 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined on Thursday to discuss the possibility of a U.S.-Iranian prisoner swap after the United States deported an Iranian woman who pleaded guilty to exporting restricted U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, U.S. accusations – denied by Tehran – that Iran attacked two Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14 and Iran‘s detention of U.S. citizens on what the United States regards as spurious grounds.

Ghodskani pleaded guilty to conspiring to buy export-controlled U.S. technology, send it to Malaysia and then on to Iran, U.S. prosecutors said. She was sentenced in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Tuesday to 2-1/4 years time served, according to court documents.

Xiyue Wang, a U.S. 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,” an allegation his family and university deny.

He was subsequently convicted on espionage charges, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

U.S. officials typically do not discuss such cases in public. Brian Hook, the U.S. State Department’s special representative for Iran, on Monday said that if Iran wanted to show good faith, it should release the U.S. citizens it has detained, including Wang.

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“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.

Wang’s wife, Hua Qu, said she had no reason to believe that a prisoner swap was in the offing.

“I have not received any indication of a prisoner swap, but I hope it’s true. We need to put aside our political differences so Xiyue can be reunited with his family, our son Shaofan and I miss him deeply,” she said in a brief statement.

Washington has demanded that 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, businessman Nizar Zakka, who has U.S. permanent residency and had been imprisoned for four years 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.

(Reporting By Humeyra Pamuk, Michelle Nichols and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)