Iranian official says $6 billion for prisoner swap with US already in Qatar

Nasser Kanaani reports exchange of five prisoners from each side will take place later Monday; US officials don’t acknowledge remarks

Iranian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani speaks in Tehran, Iran, in a photo released  August 11, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)
Iranian Foreign Ministry, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani speaks in Tehran, Iran, in a photo released August 11, 2022. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Some $6 billion of Iranian assets once frozen in South Korea is in Qatar, a key element for a planned prisoner swap between Tehran and the United States, an Iranian official said Monday.

Nasser Kanaani made the comment during a news conference aired on state television, but the feed cut immediately after his remarks without explanation.

“The issue of swap of prisoners will be done on this day and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the US,” Kanaani said. “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side reciprocally, based on their will. We expect these two issues to fully take place based on the agreement.”

He said two of the Iranian prisoners will stay in the US.

Iranian news agencies immediately afterward reported, quoting Kanaani, that the prisoner swap would be done on Monday. There was no other information immediately released by the agencies and US officials did not acknowledge the comments.

The announcement by Kanaani comes weeks after Iran said that five Iranian-Americans are now under house arrest as part of a confidence-building move while Seoul allowed the frozen assets, held in South Korean won, to be converted into euros. That money was then sent to Qatar, an interlocutor between Tehran and Washington in the negotiations.

This undated photo shows Baquer Namazi, left, and his son Siamak, in an unidentified location. (Babak Namazi via AP)

The planned swap has unfolded amid a major American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of US troops boarding and guarding commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.

The deal has also already opened US President Joe Biden to fresh criticism from Republicans and others who say that the administration is helping boost the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to US troops and Mideast allies. That could carry over into his reelection campaign as well.

On the US side, Washington has said the planned swap includes Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on internationally criticized spying charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence.

US official have so far declined to identify the fourth and fifth prisoner.

Emad Sharghi. (Courtesy)

The five prisoners Iran has said it seeks are mostly held over allegedly trying to export material to Iran.

The final dollar amount from Seoul could be anywhere between $6 billion to $7 billion, depending on exchange rates. The cash represents money South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.

The US maintains that, once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts and will only be able to be used for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. Those transactions are currently allowed under American sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic over its advancing nuclear program.

Iranian government officials have largely concurred with that explanation, though some hard-liners have insisted, without providing evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.

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