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Iran cites coronavirus, and says it`s ready for prisoner swap with US

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Iran says it is ready for unconditional prisoner swap talks with the United States because of fears that the coronavirus could put the lives of the prisoners at risk, Iranian media reported Sunday.

Tensions between them have escalated since 2018 when US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear accord and reimposed sanctions on Iran.

While the exchange represented a rare win for both countries, it came as Iran faced crushing U.S. sanctions and followed nationwide protests that reportedly saw more than 200 people killed.

White is among tens of thousands of prisoners granted medical furloughs by Iran, which was one of the first countries to be hit hard by the spreading coronavirus.

Iran is the worst-hit country in the Middle East, while the U.S. has reported the highest number of deaths worldwide from the virus. He was released from prison in mid-March on medical leave but remains in Iran.

Last week, USA officials said they were making progress in efforts to secure the release of Michael White, a detained Navy veteran in Iran. Under Trump, the USA has reimposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic relations shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution after hardline Iranians seized the USA embassy and took 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Switzerland looks after U.S. interests with Teheran.

Iranian media have said several Iranians are now in U.S. custody.

Iran is believed to be holding at least four Americans, including Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, his father, Baqer Namazi, and environmentalist and businessman Morad Tahbaz.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last December that Teheran was ready for a full prisoner exchange with the United States, tweeting: "The ball is in the US' court".

Last year, the two countries conducted an exchange, swapping US-held Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani and Chinese-American Princeton scholar Xiyue Wang detained in Iran.

In mid-March, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Teheran to free American prisoners as a humanitarian gesture because of the coronavirus.

Since then, Washington has stepped up economic sanctions on Tehran as part of a "maximum pressure" campaign aimed at forcing Iranian officials to return to the negotiating table to discuss a new agreement that also encompasses the country's ballistic missiles programme.

The United States is set to deport Iranian professor Sirous Asgari, who was acquitted of stealing trade secrets, once he receives medical clearance to leave, USA and Iranian officials said on Tuesday.

Hostility between the countries reached historic heights this year.

In response, Iran fired a barrage of missiles at bases in Iraq where United States troops were stationed.

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