September 30, 2023

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Iran Transfers US Citizens From Prison in a New Diplomatic Push

(Bloomberg) — Iran moved four US citizens from prison to house arrest in a move that would clear the way for their eventual release and is expected to lead to Tehran recovering $6 billion in frozen assets from South Korea.

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The prisoners include Siamak Namazi, who has been held in Tehran’s Evin prison since October 2015, as well as Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, and another American who prefers to remain anonymous. A fifth US citizen is already under house arrest.

“We have received confirmation that Iran has released from prison five Americans who were unjustly detained and has placed them on house arrest,” US National Securty Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement Thursday.

Earlier: US, Iran Inch Toward Understanding Aimed at Easing Tensions

A person familiar with the negotiations, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations, said Iran isn’t getting anything from the US or any other country directly for releasing the Americans from Evin Prison, and under ideal circumstances they would return to the US sometime in September.

But Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency said four US citizens will be released in exchange for four or more unidentified Iranians detained in the US and only after the $6 billion in funds blocked in South Korea are transferred into an account in Qatar.

The US and Iran have been engaged in talks for months that have seen them inch toward an informal understanding under which Tehran would free the Americans and potentially impose limits on its nuclear program.

Those negotiations — conducted through intermediaries in Oman and elsewhere — led to an initial understanding for Iran to release prisoners while the US would allow for the release of more than $6 billion in frozen funds that South Korea owes to Iran for oil purchases, Bloomberg News reported previously. Iran would be able to use those funds only for humanitarian purposes such as food and medicine, according to the person.

Read More: Iran, US to Exchange Prisoners ‘Soon’, Foreign Minister Says

Even with those limits on how Iran can spend the money, President Joe Biden may face political peril from any agreement with Iran. Republicans and some Democrats have warned him against even an informal deal with Iran heading into an election year.

The Swiss government, which represents US interests in Tehran in the absence of formal diplomatic relations, served as an intermediary, according to the person, who also credited Qatar and Oman with helping facilitate the process.

Iran has made tentative steps toward trying to ease tensions in the region with an agreement to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and cooperate more with the International Atomic Energy Agency, even as it has dramatically boosted uranium-enrichment and has allegedly supplied Russia with drones and other materiel for the war in Ukraine.

These negotiations are wholly separate from the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, the person said. Even so, Western diplomats have been pushing Iran to voluntarily limit its uranium-enrichment levels and boost its cooperation with international monitors in return for allowances to ship more crude.

As far back as March, Iran’s foreign affairs minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Iran and the US were preparing to carry out a prisoner exchange. Then-State Department spokesman Ned Price called that claim a “cruel lie.”

On Thursday, Watson, the National Security Council spokeswoman, called the releases from prison an encouraging step but said the Americans “should have never been detained in the first place.” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said they “must be allowed to depart Iran and reunite with their loved ones as soon as possible.”

(Updates with Iranian confirmation starting in fifth paragraph)

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