September 25, 2023

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Iran, U.S. exchanging prisoners, $6B in funds unfrozen for Iran

Five prisoners sought by the U.S. in a swap with Iran flew out of Tehran on Monday, officials said, part of a deal that saw nearly $6 billion US in Iranian assets unfrozen.

Flight-tracking data analyzed by the Associated Press showed a Qatar Airways flight take off at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been used for exchanges in the past. Iranian state media soon after said the flight had left Tehran.

Two people, including a senior Biden administration official, said that the prisoners had left Tehran. They both spoke on condition of anonymity because the exchange was ongoing. In addition to the five freed Americans, two U.S. family members flew out, according to the Biden administration official. 

Earlier, officials said that the exchange would take place after nearly $6 billion US in once-frozen Iranian assets reached Qatar, a key element of the planned swap.

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The exchange comes just ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said earlier Monday the cash sought for the exchange was now in Qatar. 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 Donald Trump administration imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.

The U.S. 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.

A bearded man in a turban and wearing glasses speaks at a podium at the United Nations.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi prepares delivers remarks at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2022 in New York City. Raisi is scheduled to be back at the General Assembly this week. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

On the U.S. 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. U.S. official have so far declined to identify the fourth and fifth prisoner.

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

John Kirby, national security council spokesperson for the Biden administration, told CNN that ultimately only two of them will return to Iran, with another person to land in an unspecified third country where they also have citizenship. Two will be freed and remain in the U.S., though Kirby didn’t offer specific details.

“I don’t think there’s any cause for the American people to be concerned about that,” Kirby said, referring to the Iranians remaining in the U.S.

Fresh sanctions on Iran planned

Speaking to reporters late on Sunday, senior Biden administration officials said Washington would keep up the pressure on Tehran by imposing fresh sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their involvement in the detention of U.S. citizens.

The deal has already opened 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 U.S. troops and Mideast allies. 

“While I welcome home wrongfully detained Americans, unfreezing $6B in #Iranian assets dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking & provides a windfall for regime aggression,” Idaho Sen. James Risch, a Republican, posted on social media last month when reports of the planned deal first surfaced.

A man walks into a room with a large, multicolored mural on the wall.
A man on Aug. 19 walks through the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, which has been turned into an anti-American museum. Tensions between the U.S. and Iran remain heightened on a number of issues. (Vahid Salemi/The Associated Press)

The two countries remain bitterly opposed on a number of fronts.

Iran’s nuclear program now enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels since former president Donald Trump in 2018 unilaterally pulled out of a multilateral nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The U.S. reimposed sanctions on Iran, prompting Tehran to start backing away from the deal’s terms.

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, though months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile — if Iran decided to pursue one. 

A series of ship seizures in the Strait of Hormuz attributed to Iran have also exacerbated tensions with Washington. The Pentagon is considering a plan to put U.S. troops on board commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of all oil shipments flow out of the Persian Gulf.

Iran also supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones Moscow uses to target sites in Ukraine, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.

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