NEW YORK — Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Sunday that he would work for the release of three Americans imprisoned in Tehran if the United States would free Iranians held in U.S. prisons for sanctions violations.
“If we can help free folks who are detained there and they can take reciprocal steps, we’d welcome that approach,” he said through an interpreter at a reception that the Iranian mission to the United Nations held for scholars who specialize in the Middle East as well as some journalists.
Rouhani mentioned the jailed Americans after he had spent almost 90 minutes answering questions submitted in writing and then posed by the interpreter.
He said the United States is holding people who are not guilty of any crime except working to get around sanctions the United States imposed to prevent corporations and individuals from doing business with Iran. The sanctions will start to be lifted soon as part of a landmark deal forged between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, to get Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
Those who broke the sanctions, Rouhani said, “tried to do something which they won’t be punished for now.”
Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are in New York for the U.N. General Assembly. They are spending part of their time meeting with officials to discuss steps being taken as outlined in the nuclear agreement reached in July.
In several interviews Rouhani has granted recently, he has repeatedly raised the issue of a prisoner exchange — three Americans for 19 Iranians.
Among the Americans is Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post correspondent in Tehran who was arrested more than 14 months ago. He has been tried on espionage and related charges in a secret Revolutionary Court trial that apparently ended six weeks ago. No verdict has been announced. Rezaian’s family, the State Department and senior Post editors have said that Rezaian was wrongly charged for activities that are normal for a journalist.
When Iranian officials have been asked about Rezaian’s case previously, they have said that Iran has a judicial process and that they have no control over it.
The other Americans are Amir Hekmati of Flint, Mich., a former Marine who has been in prison for four years, and Saeed Abedini of Boise, Idaho, a pastor who was arrested for establishing home churches. A fourth American, Robert Levinson, is a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 and whose whereabouts are unknown.