Blinken vows no new sanctions relief for Iran

US-Iran prisoner swap said to be part of larger deal that addresses nuclear program

Israeli officials tell NYT that exchange agreement stems from broader informal understandings, which include Iran limiting its nuclear work and halting proxy attacks on US forces

Illustrative: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, shown in the poster, at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)
Illustrative: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a ceremony commemorating the death anniversary of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, shown in the poster, at his mausoleum just outside Tehran, Iran, June 4, 2023. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Israeli officials said a prisoner exchange deal announced Thursday between the US and Iran is 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.

Two senior Israeli defense officials told The New York Times the prisoner deal stems from agreements worked out between the US and Iran during indirect talks in Oman.

The prisoner agreement could also facilitate further diplomacy between the two countries, as the Biden administration looks to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the report said.

If the prisoner deal goes through, it would remove a sticking point between Washington and Tehran. Relations have also flared between the two countries due to Iran’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its threats to commercial maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf, among other issues.

Iran and the US appear to be adhering to the informal agreements worked out in Oman, which include Iran limiting further development of its nuclear program and preventing its proxies in Iraq and Syria from attacking US forces.

A US military official told the New York Times that Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq have scaled back activity against US troops, and an Israeli official said Russia is seeking more military help from Iran, despite the hundreds of attack drones Iran has sent to support Moscow’s war effort.

A US Navy sailor aboard the USS Paul Hamilton in the Strait of Hormuz, May 19, 2023. (AP/Jon Gambrell, File)

In the prisoner exchange deal, Iran transferred five Iranian Americans from prison to house arrest, in a step toward releasing the detainees, in exchange for $6 billion to $7 billion in Iranian funds that were frozen by sanctions and held in South Korea.

Iran’s UN mission said the money would be transferred to Qatar before being sent on to Iran if the agreement goes through. The final transfer of the money, and the ultimate release of the detainees, are expected in the next month or so due to the complicated nature of the financial transactions, Iranian officials told The Associated Press.

A mural depicting American hostages and wrongful detainees who are being held abroad in Washington, July 20, 2022, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. At left is Siamak Namazi, who has been in captivity in Iran since 2015. At right is Jose Angel Pereira, who has been imprisoned in Venezuela since 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Iran has also said it seeks the release of Iranian prisoners held in the US. American officials declined to comment on who or how many Iranian prisoners might be released in a final agreement. The New York Times reported that five Iranians jailed in the US will be released.

“As part of a humanitarian cooperation agreement mediated by a third-party government, Iran and the US have agreed to reciprocally release and pardon five prisoners. The transfer of these prisoners out of prison marks a significant initial step in the implementation of this agreement,” Iran’s UN mission said in a statement.

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.

In this photo released Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023, by Sepahnews of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Guard’s speedboats participate during a drill in the Persian Gulf. (Sepahnews via AP)

The agreement is bound to open US President Joe Biden’s administration to fresh criticism from Republicans and others that it is helping boost the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to US troops and Mideast allies.

US officials have denied reaching any nuclear deal with Iran during the indirect negotiations in Oman.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the prisoner deal will not lead to more sanctions relief for Iran.

“We will continue to enforce all of our sanctions. We will continue to push back resolutely against Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and beyond,” Blinken said. “None of these efforts take away from that.”

“My belief is that this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare,” Blinken said of the prisoners, although he warned that there was “more work to be done to actually bring them home.”

The Biden administration has been defending its desire to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, since it first took office. The deal collapsed after former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018, prompting Iran to ramp up its nuclear program.

US intelligence assessments have said Iran is not currently pursuing nuclear weapons but has stepped up activities that could help it develop them.

Israel has long maintained that Iran seeks a nuclear weapon, and staunchly opposes a renewed nuclear deal.

Formal nuclear talks between Iran and the Biden administration were held in Vienna but fell apart last year, a failure the US blamed on unacceptable demands from Iran.

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