AFP: The United States on Monday dismissed a suggestion by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to free Iranians in exchange for two detained hikers as Washington drums up pressure on the Islamic republic.
By Shaun Tandon
WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States on Monday dismissed a suggestion by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to free Iranians in exchange for two detained hikers as Washington drums up pressure on the Islamic republic.
Ahmadinejad is visiting New York for the UN General Assembly, where key powers plan talks on the next steps over Iran’s nuclear program. Jewish groups have called street protests against the firebrand leader.
Opening his visit, Ahmadinejad called in an interview on Sunday for the United States to release eight Iranians as a “humanitarian gesture” after the Islamic republic freed US hiker Sarah Shourd.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner rejected any link.
“We would just say that there is no equivalent between these individuals who have been either charged or tried and afforded due process in a court and these hikers who crossed an unmarked border and have yet to be charged,” Toner told reporters.
Shourd, 32, returned to the United States after more than a year in detention, but two fellow hikers remain in custody.
The hikers say they strayed into Iran in July 2009 from Iraqi Kurdistan. But Iranian authorities have alleged that they were spying.
Toner said he was not aware that Iran presented a list of prisoners to the United States and that he was unsure about the Iranians whom Ahmadinejad was seeking.
Iranian media reports have said the United States is holding around a dozen Iranians in custody, with some detained in other countries at Washington’s request.
Ahmadinejad, in comments to Iranian state television on Friday, referred to “several Iranians it (the United States) has caught in Thailand, Georgia and elsewhere, or inside the US for exporting certain goods.”
In the interview with ABC, Ahmadinejad regretted that the Iranians “haven’t even received a note” from the United States after the release of Shourd.
Toner said he was not aware of any correspondence by the United States to Iran.
“We’re very, very pleased and happy to have Sarah Shourd home. We also call on the Iranian government to release the other two hikers who remain in Iran,” Toner said.
President Barack Obama, shortly after taking office last year, offered talks with Iran to end three decades of bad blood since the Islamic revolution overthrew the pro-Western shah.
Toner said that the door for engagement with Iran remained open.
“We recognize the people of Iran as important to the region. We recognize that they can play an important, constructive role. But, really, that’s a decision for Iran and the Iranian government to make,” he said.
But the administration appears to have sharpened its tone on Iran.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in an interview on Sunday portrayed the Islamic republic as a dictatorship in the aftermath of Ahmadinejad’s June 2009 re-election, which triggered major protests by Iranians alleging major fraud.
“And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state,” Clinton told ABC News.
Clinton on Wednesday will join her counterparts from the four other permanent Security Council members — Britain, China, France and Russia — along with Germany to discuss Iran.
The six powers met with Iran in Geneva in October 2009 and agreed on a nuclear fuel swap deal. But the agreement has since stalled and in June the Security Council approved a fourth round of sanctions against Iran.
Iran says it is pursuing a civilian energy program, but Western powers widely suspect it is seeking nuclear weapons.