VIENNA (Reuters) - The United States is unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage, the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday.
The official, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, repeated the long-held U.S. position that the issue of the four people held in Iran is separate from the nuclear negotiations. He moved a step closer, however, to saying that their release was a precondition for a nuclear agreement.
"They're separate and we're pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran," Malley told Reuters in an interview.
"So even as we're conducting talks with Iran indirectly on the nuclear file we are conducting, again indirectly, discussions with them to ensure the release of our hostages," he said in Vienna, where talks are taking place on bringing Washington and Tehran back into full compliance with the deal.
In recent years, Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on espionage and security-related charges.
Rights groups have accused Iran of taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage, while Western powers have long demanded that Tehran free their citizens, who they say are political prisoners.
Tehran denies holding people for political reasons.
Malley was speaking in a joint interview with Barry Rosen, a 77-year-old former U.S. diplomat who has been on hunger strike in Vienna to demand the release of U.S., British, French, German, Austrian and Swedish prisoners in Iran, and that no nuclear agreement be reached without their release.
Rosen was one of more than 50 U.S. diplomats held during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis.
"I've spoken to a number of the families of the hostages who are extraordinarily grateful for what Mr Rosen is doing but they also are imploring him to stop his hunger strike, as I am, because the message has been sent," Malley said.
Rosen said that after five days of not eating he was feeling weak and would heed those calls.
"With the request from Special Envoy Malley and my doctors and others, we've agreed (that) after this meeting I will stop my hunger strike but this does not mean that others will not take up the baton," Rosen said.
The indirect talks between Iran and the United States on bringing both countries back into full compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear deal are in their eighth round. Iran refuses to hold meetings with U.S. officials, meaning others shuttle between the two sides.
The deal between Iran and major powers lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear activities that extended the time it would need to obtain enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb if it chose to. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Then-President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018, reimposing punishing economic sanctions against Tehran. Iran responded by breaching many of the deal's nuclear restrictions, to the point that Western powers say the deal will soon have been hollowed out completely.
Asked if Iran and the United States might negotiate directly, Malley said: "We've heard nothing to that effect. We'd welcome it."
The four U.S. citizens include Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, both of whom have been convicted of "collaboration with a hostile government".
Namazi remains in prison. His father was released on medical grounds in 2018 and his sentence later reduced to time served. While the elder Namazi is no longer jailed, a lawyer for the family says he is effectively barred from leaving Iran.
"Senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly told us that although the potential Iranian nuclear and hostage deals are independent and must be negotiated on parallel tracks, they will not just conclude the nuclear deal by itself," said Jared Genser, pro bono counsel to the Namazi family.
"Otherwise, all leverage to get the hostages out will be lost," he added.
The others are environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, who is also British, and businessman Emad Shargi, 57.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Daniel Wallis)