Blinken and Raab, top diplomats of US and UK, discuss an array of subjects, such as sanctions on Russian citizens, climate crisis and Biden's decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, in London ahead of G-7 conference.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hold a joint news conference following their bilateral meeting in London on May 3, 2021.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab hold a joint news conference following their bilateral meeting in London on May 3, 2021. (Reuters)

The US and the UK have dismissed reports coming out of Iran that they are thrashing out a prisoner exchange deal with Tehran that could see the imminent release of a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and four Americans, among others.

Iran was a key topic of discussions on Monday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his host in London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. 

Their meeting took place a day before the first face-to-face meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in two years, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Iran, Ukraine, China, Russia, climate change and Covid-19 are expected to dominate the talks.

Blinken's visit to London, his first since being appointed by President Joe Biden, comes amid mounting speculation of a prisoner swap deal with Iran. Such exchanges are not uncommon and were a feature of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the world’s leading powers. 

Biden has indicated he is looking to restart nuclear talks with Tehran after his predecessor, Donald Trump, pulled the US out of the agreement in 2018.

"The reports coming out of Tehran are not accurate," Blinken said at a press briefing after their meeting, adding that he had "no higher priority" than bringing all detained Americans home.

"More broadly on this, we have to take a stand against the arbitrary detention of citizens for political purposes," he said.

Raab seeks Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release

Raab also dismissed the prospects of an imminent breakthrough amid reports in Iran that Britain would pay $550 million debt to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe's release. 

He insisted that the British government was working "very intensively" on the release of detained British citizens in Iran.

"I would say it's incumbent on Iran unconditionally to release those who are held arbitrarily and in our view unlawfully," Raab said.

In Britain, there's particular interest in the well-being of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was last week sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of spreading "propaganda against the system."

The two diplomats discussed an array of subjects, such as sanctions on Russian citizens, climate crisis and Biden's decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan later this year, a process that began in earnest over the weekend. 

Russia and its aggressive actions toward Ukraine were also on the agenda, with Blinken set to travel to the Ukrainian capital of Keiv on Wednesday.

Biden is also set to take a new approach with regard to North Korea following a policy review completed last week. 

Blinken, who met in London with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts earlier Monday, said the new approach will be "practical and calibrated" and urged the leadership in Pyongyang to "take the opportunity to engage diplomatically."

On Tuesday, the top diplomats from the full G-7 — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US — will meet along with their foreign minister colleagues from selected other countries, including Australia, India and South Africa.

US officials in Mideast to reassure jittery allies over Iran

Meanwhile, top Biden administration officials and US senators crisscrossed the Middle East, seeking to assuage growing unease among Gulf Arab partners over America's re-engagement with Iran and other policy shifts in the region.

The trips on Monday come as the US and Iran, through intermediaries in Vienna, discuss a return to Tehran's tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that former President Donald Trump abandoned three years ago.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies, excluded from Obama-era nuclear negotiations, have repeatedly pressed for a seat at the table, insisting that any return to the accord must address Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional proxies.

Senator Chris Coons, a key Biden ally dispatched on overseas diplomatic missions, told reporters in the UAE's capital of Abu Dhabi that he hoped to allay the sheikhdom's ''understandable and legitimate concern'' about the return to the landmark deal and to create ''broader engagement'' with Gulf partners.

READ MORE: Iran nuclear deal parties agree US, Iranian compliance must be expedited

UAE input in US-Iran talks

Coons said ''close consultation'' with the UAE about the ongoing talks in Vienna was ''important, expected and happening,'' adding that he hopes the Emiratis ''may not just be notified, but actually help.''

What that means remains unclear, as Gulf states now watch with resignation as negotiations gain traction in the Austrian capital. 

When asked to elaborate, Coons balked at the suggestion that the UAE's input had acquired any greater significance in talks with Iran over the last five years.

''I did not in any way mean to suggest that there was some deal in the works where the Emiratis would be securing anything,'' he said. ''Vienna is the place where the United States government, the administration, is negotiating.''

Although Coons declined to share what he knew of the kingdom’s nuclear technology plans, he said the disastrous war in Yemen has ''left us with concerns about our ability to trust the Saudis with technology that they acquire from us.''

He added: ''Iran is not the only concerning player.''

READ MORE:Envoys to Iran nuclear talks hail 'progress' in Vienna

'Critical to peace in Yemen'

In a tour intended to boost ''long-standing political, economic, cultural, and security ties,'' several senior Biden administration officials are touring Arab capitals, with Brett McGurk from the National Security Council and Derek Chollet from the State Department, among others, stopping in Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Amman and Cairo this week.

Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn joined the flurry of diplomatic activity in the region this week, jetting to Oman, Qatar and Jordan for talks on a political solution to the war in Yemen. 

In an interview with The Associated Press from Amman, Murphy credited the influence of the Biden administration on recent steps in the region to defuse tensions, such as a Saudi ceasefire initiative floated to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and secret talks between archenemies Iran and Saudi Arabia. 

However, Murphy warned, ''so long as we're still sanctioning the hell out of the Iranian economy ... it's going to be hard to push the Houthis to a cease-fire.''

Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers ''is very important, perhaps critical to peace in Yemen,'' he added, and without it, ''the Iranians are going to see Yemen as an opportunity to make mischief against the United States and our allies.''

READ MORE: Can Iran and Saudi Arabia bury the past and end the Yemen war?

Source: AP