US, Iran may begin moving forward with prisoner swap next week — report

$6 billion in frozen Iranian funds said expected to reach Qatar within days, triggering mutual release of inmates; Iran will be able to access money only for humanitarian purchases

Left: US President Joe Biden holds a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam on September 10, 2023 (SAUL LOEB / AFP); Right: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking before students and clerics during a rally in Tehran on July 12, 2023. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)
Left: US President Joe Biden holds a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam on September 10, 2023 (SAUL LOEB / AFP); Right: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking before students and clerics during a rally in Tehran on July 12, 2023. (KHAMENEI.IR / AFP)

The US and Iran are expected to move forward next week with a prisoner swap that was agreed on last month, Reuters reported Sunday, enabling Qatar to receive frozen funds that will be made available to Tehran as part of the agreement.

The deal struck between Washington and the Islamic Republic will see five Americans and five Iranians returned to their home countries, as well as some $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue frozen in South Korea sent to a special account in Qatar. Iran will be able to access the money only for humanitarian purchases such as food and medicine, with US oversight to ensure the funds are not used to sidestep sanctions.

According to the Reuters report, which cited American and Iranian officials speaking anonymously, once the money reaches Qatar, Iran and the US will send their respective prisoners to the Gulf nation, from where they will transit home.

The State Department refused to comment on the matter, saying it was part of “an ongoing and highly sensitive negotiation.”

In August, Iran transferred the five Iranian Americans from prison to house arrest as a first stage of the agreement.

The deal 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.

A US Navy L3 Harris Arabian Fox MAST-13 drone boat and the US Coast Guard cutters USCGC John Scheuerman and USCGC Charles Moulthrope transit the Strait of Hormuz on April 19, 2023 (Information Systems Technician 1st Class Vincent Aguirre/U.S. Coast Guard via AP)

Three of the prisoners were identified as Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and 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.

The fourth and fifth prisoners were not named.

American officials have declined to comment on who the Iranian prisoners are who might be released. But Iranian media in the past identified several prisoners with cases tied to violations of US export laws and restrictions on doing business with Iran.

The alleged violations include the transfer of money through Venezuela and sales of dual-use equipment that the US alleges could be used in Iran’s military and nuclear programs. Iran has been enriching uranium and stockpiling it as part of its advancing nuclear program.

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

Iran and the US have a history of prisoner swaps dating back to the 1979 US Embassy takeover and hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution. The most recent major exchange between the two countries happened in 2016, when Iran came to a deal with world powers to restrict its nuclear program in return for an easing of sanctions.

Four American captives, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, flew home from Iran, and several Iranians in the United States won their freedom. That same day, the Obama administration airlifted $400 million in cash to Tehran.

Iran has received international criticism over its targeting of dual nationals amid tensions with the wider world. A United Nations panel has described “an emerging pattern involving the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of dual nationals.” The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners as bargaining chips, an allegation Tehran rejects.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been critical of the deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 27, 2023. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

“Israel’s position is known, according to which arrangements that do not dismantle Iran’s nuclear infrastructure will not stop its nuclear program and will only provide it with funds that will go to terrorist elements sponsored by Iran,” his office said in August.

A report that month in The New York Times cited a pair of Israeli officials who claimed that the prisoner exchange was part of a larger set of understandings between Tehran and Washington, who have been working toward an informal arrangement that would limit the Iranian nuclear program.

However, US officials have repeatedly denied that the talks were tied to Iran’s nuclear program.

For Iran, years of American sanctions following former US president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have crushed its already-anemic economy.

The release of its money from Korea, even if only disbursed under strict circumstances, could provide an economic boost.

Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi greets media representatives after a press conference in Tehran on August 29, 2023. (AFP)

For the US, the administration of President Joe Biden has tried to get Iran back into the deal, which fell apart after Trump’s 2018 withdrawal. Last year, countries involved in the initial agreement offered Tehran what was described as their last, best roadmap to restore the accord. Iran did not accept it.

Still, Iran hawks in Congress and outside critics of the 2015 nuclear deal have criticized the new arrangement, likening the money transfer to ransom payments that encourage Tehran to continue taking prisoners.

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