September 24, 2023

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Biden agrees ‘back-door’ £4.7bn prisoner swap deal with Iran

US President Joe Biden speaks on the one year anniversary of the PACT Act at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on August 10,
The president has secured the release of five American citizens as part of the deal – Jim Watson/AFP

Joe Biden has agreed a $6 billion (£4.7 billion) prisoner swap deal with Iran, despite the state’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war and fears over its nuclear programme.

US officials have negotiated the release of five American citizens from a notorious Iranian detention centre in exchange for Iranian prisoners held in US jails and $6 billion in humanitarian funding.

On Thursday, the White House confirmed that Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz, plus two other American detainees, had been released from Evin Prison as part of the swap.

It is understood the prisoners have been transferred to a hotel in Tehran, where they will remain under house arrest until the Iranian authorities receive $6 billion of its sanctioned oil revenue that is currently being held in South Korea.

The New York Times reported that the money would be transferred to Qatar, where Iran will be allowed to access it for humanitarian purposes, including food and medicine purchases.

Mr Namazi, an American-Iranian businessman, has been held in Iranian jail for seven years – the longest any American has been held by the state.

Siamak Namazi
A lawyer for Siamak Namazi says there are ‘no guarantees’ over his return to the US – Ahmad Kiarostami/Reuters

He was sentenced in 2015 for “collaborating with a foreign government”. On Thursday, his lawyer said his move to house arrest was the “beginning of the end and nothing more” and there were “no guarantees” he would be allowed to travel back to the United States.

An undisclosed number of Iranian prisoners detained in the US for breaches of sanctions on Iran will be released as part of the deal.

Adrienne Watson, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the Americans who have been released “should never have been detained in the first place”.

“We have received confirmation that Iran has released from prison five Americans who were unjustly detained and has placed them on house arrest,” she said.

“While this is an encouraging step, these US citizens – Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi, and two Americans who at this time wish to remain private – should have never been detained in the first place.

“We will continue to monitor their condition as closely as possible. Of course, we will not rest until they are all back home in the United States.

She added that the “negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate”.

‘Iran is an adversary’

The deal is likely to be controversial in Washington, where Republicans have attacked Mr Biden for his willingness to engage in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear deal.

In March 2022, 49 Republican senators wrote to the president warning him that bilateral discussions with Iran over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action would be meaningless unless the White House had a mandate from Congress.

Since then, US government officials have said they believed Iran is supplying killer drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine, and may be helping Vladimir Putin set up a drone factory in the region.

In June, the US, UK and France were joint signatories to a request for the United Nations to investigate the supply of Iranian drones to Russia, which they said would be in breach of UN sanctions.

Thursday’s deal is set to attract the criticism of the GOP, which is attempting to weaponise the issue of Iran’s nuclear capability ahead of next year’s presidential election.

“I urge the Administration to remember that US law requires that any agreement, arrangement, or understanding with Iran needs to be submitted to Congress,” Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in June.

“Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. Any back-door agreement here is an attempt to skirt congressional oversight,” added Deb Fischer, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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