September 26, 2023

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

Iran and the United States will exchange prisoners on Monday after some $6 billion US once frozen in South Korea reached Qatar, a key element of the planned swap, officials said.

The planned 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 was the first to acknowledge the swap would take place Monday. He said the cash sought for the exchange was now in Qatar.

Kanaani made his comments during a news conference aired on state television, but the feed cut immediately after his remarks without explanation.

“On the subject of the prisoner swap, it will happen today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the U.S.,” Kanaani said “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the U.S. side reciprocally, based on their will. We expect these two issues fully take place based on the agreement.”

Washington did not acknowledge the comments. However, a Qatar Airways Airbus A320 landed on Monday morning at Mehrabad International Airport in Tehran, where previous prisoner releases have taken place, according to flight-tracking data analyzed by the Associated Press. Qatar Airways uses Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport for its commercial flights.

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.

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 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.

First exchange in several years

The last major exchange between the 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 at the time, and several Iranians in the U.S. won their freedom. That same day, President Barack Obama’s administration airlifted $400 million in cash to Tehran.

The deal has also 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,” Sen. James Risch, an Idaho Republican, posted on social media last month when reports of the emerging deal first surfaced.

Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal in 2018.

Iran’s nuclear program now enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels since the U.S. pullout from the pact. While the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, 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 in its war on Kyiv, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.

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