Qatar's top envoy visits Iran as Tehran and Washington consider direct nuclear talks

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FILE PHOTO: Qatari foreign minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, is pictured at the presidential palace in Baabda

By Parisa Hafezi and Andrew Mills

DUBAI (Reuters) - Qatar's top diplomat visited Iran on Thursday, Iranian state media reported, days before Qatar's ruling emir holds talks in Washington at a crucial time for efforts by Tehran and major powers to revive a 2015 nuclear pact.

The visit by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani's comes after his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian on Monday said Tehran is ready to consider direct talks https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/iran-says-it-rules-out-us-prisoner-release-nuclear-talks-precondition-2022-01-24 with Washington if it feels it can get a "good nuclear deal".

However, Iran's state news agency IRNA said the visit was not intended to help set up direct talks with Washington.

"Although Doha and Tehran are experiencing good and close relations, this visit ... has fuelled some misconceptions. Some are fabricating it to facilitate direct talks with the United States," IRNA said.

The United States and Iran have held eight rounds of indirect talks in Vienna since April aimed at reinstating the pact that lifted sanctions against Tehran in exchange for restrictions on its nuclear programme.

After then-U.S. President Donald Trump quit the nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed harsh sanctions, Iran gradually started violating the pact's nuclear curbs.

Significant gaps remain about the speed and scope of returning to the deal, including Iran's demand for a U.S. guarantee of no further punitive steps, and how and when to restore curbs on Iran's atomic work.

Qatar's ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, will hold talks with U.S. President Joe Biden https://www.reuters.com/world/qatars-emir-visit-washington-jan-31-2022-01-25 on Jan. 31 including on efforts to salvage the pact. The minister, Sheikh Mohammed, is expected in Washington on Friday in advance of the emir's visit.

Iran's hardline President Ebrahim Raisi emphesized the importance of "deepening ties between regional countries" in a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed, who invited the president to attend Gas Exporting Countries Forum summit in February in Doha.

PRISONER RELEASE

Amirabdollahian previously met Sheikh Tamim and Sheikh Mohammed in Doha on Jan. 11. During that visit, he asked Qatar to broker the release of dual-national Iranian-Americans and Iranian-Europeans jailed in Iran, a person with knowledge of the discussions told Reuters this week.

Reuters could not establish if Qatar agreed to the request, but the Gulf Arab state has actively helped release foreign prisoners in other countries in the past.

The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday that securing the nuclear deal is unlikely unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage.

While ruling out any U.S. preconditions, Iran said on Monday that Tehran and Washington can reach "a lasting agreement on both separate paths (the Vienna talks and the prisoner exchange) if the other party has the will".

Iranian officials on Thursday declined to comment on the matter but Tehran has repeatedly said it is ready for a full prisoner exchange with Washington.

Tehran denies holding people for political reasons. It has accused many of the dual-nationals and foreigners in its jails of espionage. Tehran says Iranians detained in the U.S., mostly for breaking sanctions, are being unjustly held.

(Reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Andrew Mills in Doha; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Nick Macfie)