Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Tuesday proposed a swap of Iranians in U.S. prisons for three American hikers being held in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad said in interview with state TV that there were ongoing negotiations about exchanging the hikers for several Iranians jailed for years in the United States.
"There are some talks under way to have an exchange, if it is possible," he said. "Recently they (the U.S.) have sent messages, we answered to bring them (the Iranians), to bring these people (the hikers). We are hopeful that all prisoners will be released."
Ahmadinejad did not mention any specifics but in December Iran released a list of 11 Iranians it says are being held in the U.S. — including a nuclear scientist who disappeared in Saudi Arabia and a former Defense Ministry official who vanished in Turkey. The list also includes an Iranian arrested in Canada on charges of trying to obtain nuclear technology.
"I had said I would help in releasing them, but the attitude of some of U.S. officials damages the job," said Ahmadinejad. "There are a large number of Iranians in prison in the U.S. They have abducted some of our citizens in other countries."
Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were hiking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region in July when they accidentally crossed the border into Iran, their families have said.
Samantha Topping, a New York City-based spokeswoman for the three families, said they had no comment on Ahmadinejad's remarks.
U.S. officials responded cautiously.
"We have made clear that we would like the cases of all our missing and detained Americans citizens to be resolved," National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said, naming the three hikers and three other Americans in Iran. "If President Ahmadinejad's comments suggest that they are prepared to resolve these cases, we would welcome that step. But we have not entered into any discussion with Iran about an exchange."
Iran's foreign minister said in late December that the three would be tried in court, but he did not say when a trial would begin or what the three would be charged with other than to say they had "suspicious aims." Earlier, the country's chief prosecutor said they were accused of spying.
Their families have said that's ludicrous and last month hired an Iranian attorney to press the case.
Ahmadinejad said there were "indications they knew they were crossing into Iran."
The last time anyone sympathetic saw the three was at the end of October, when Swiss diplomats were granted a short visit. The U.S. has no diplomatic relationship with Iran and is represented in such matters by the Swiss. At the time, the diplomats said the three were in good health.
Their jailing comes amid continued tension between the U.S. and Iran over that nation's nuclear program.
When the list of 11 Iranians came out State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said it appeared the Iranian government was trying to suggest some kind of equivalence between the hikers and Iranians that had left Iran.
"There really is no equivalence at all," he said at the time.
Three of the Iranians on the list have been convicted or charged in public court proceedings in the United States. The circumstances surrounding some of the others are more mysterious.
Ali Reza Asgari, a retired general in the elite Revolutionary Guard and a former deputy defense minister, disappeared while on a private trip to Turkey in December 2006.
Shahram Amiri, an Iranian nuclear scientist, went missing while on a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in June. Iran's foreign minister has accused the U.S. of helping to kidnap him and has asked for his return.
The list also includes three Iranians who Tehran claims were abducted in Europe and sent to the U.S.: merchant Mohsen Afrasiabi, who it says disappeared in Germany, as well as electrical engineering student Majid Kakavand and a former ambassador to Jordan, Nasrollah Tajik, who it says vanished in France.
French media have reported that Kakavand was arrested in March at the request of the U.S. on suspicion he obtained electronic equipment. He was jailed, then moved to house arrest on Aug. 27. The French press has reported that Tajik went missing in Britain.
Three of the Iranians Tehran is asking about have faced public legal proceedings in the U.S.
One of them, Baktash Fattahi, is a legal U.S. resident. He was arrested in April in California and charged with conspiracy to export American-made military aircraft parts to Iran.
Another, Amir Amirnazmi, is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen who was convicted by a court in Pennsylvania in February of business dealings with Iranian companies banned under U.S. sanctions.
Amir Hossein Ardebili was sentenced to five years in prison on Dec. 14 by a court in Wilmington, Delaware, after pleading guilty to plotting to ship U.S. military technology to Iran. Iran has called it a show trial and said Ardebili was abducted in the former Soviet republic of Georgia in 2007 before being handed over to U.S. authorities in 2008.
One of the other Iranians, Mahmoud Yadegari, was arrested in April in Canada after a joint investigation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and charged with trying to send nuclear technology to his native Iran.
Authorities allege Yadegari tried to procure and export pressure transducers, which can be used in the production of enriched uranium but also have many legitimate commercial uses.
The other two Iranians on the list are Amir-Shahrzad Amir-Qolikhani and Hassan Saeid Kashari. Iran gave no information about them other than to say they are being held in the U.S. without charge.