White House won't draw US prisoners into Iran nuclear talks

The White House says it won't link the nuclear talks with Iran to efforts to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in the country, including a journalist from The Washington Post facing charges.

"We have been very clear that these two priorities have been raised on two separate tracks," said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. "But they are priorities nonetheless."

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Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryThe enemy of my enemy is my friend — an alliance that may save the Middle East Democratic governors fizzle in presidential race A lesson of the Trump, Tlaib, Omar, Netanyahu affair MORE implored Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to release U.S. prisoners, including Post reporter Jason Rezaian, on the margins of nuclear talks earlier this week in Geneva.

But the administration appears wary of linking discussions on the topic out of concern Iran could use the prisoners as leverage to retain aspects of its nuclear program.

"The way that this question is typically asked of me, is if we would consider allowing Iran to take some steps related to their nuclear program in exchange for them taking some steps related to these American citizens that we're very concerned about," Earnest said.

In addition to Rezaian, U.S. citizens Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini are being held in Iranian prisons. The U.S. has also asked Tehran to assist in the recovery of Robert Levinson, a retired FBI agent who was taken hostage in 2007. 

The approach seems to differ from the one applied to Cuba, where the administration said it would not take steps to normalize relations with the Castro regime unless U.S. aid worker Alan Gross was freed. Gross was released in December as President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Havana. On Friday, new regulations easing trade and travel restrictions on Cuba will go into effect.

Earnest rejected the analogy, saying that there was a "much longer list" of foreign policy concerns with Iran.

"The United States has significant concerns with the Iranian regime not just as it relates to their treatment of these U.S. citizens, but for a whole host of other things — for their failure to respect the basic human rights of their citizens; for their support for terror activities around the globe; certainly their rhetoric and treatment of Israel," Earnest said.

"Even if we are able to strike the kind of critically important nuclear agreement that would resolve or at least remove one of the more vexing and far-reaching policy challenges that exist in this area of the world, we would still have a large number of concerns with the Iranians," he added.