DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran and the United States are set to exchange prisoners on Monday, following the transfer of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets to Qatar. This development marks a crucial step in the planned swap, as confirmed by officials.
The exchange, however, does not guarantee the elimination of tensions between the two countries. Iran and the U.S. are embroiled in various disputes, including those related to Tehran’s nuclear program. While Iran asserts that its nuclear activities are peaceful, it has now enriched uranium to levels perilously close to weapons-grade.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was the first to announce that the prisoner exchange would occur on Monday. He revealed that the funds required for the swap, previously held by South Korea, had been transferred to Qatar.
Later, an anonymous source with direct knowledge of the exchange informed The Associated Press that both Iranian and U.S. officials had been notified of the transfer of funds to Qatar, the intermediary between the two nations.
Kanaani’s announcement was made during a televised news conference, although the feed abruptly cut off after his remarks.
“Fortunately, Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea have been released, and we hope that today these assets will come under the full control of the government and the nation,” Kanaani stated.
“Regarding the prisoner swap, it will take place today, and five Iranian citizens imprisoned in the U.S. will be released from their prisons. In return, five prisoners held in Iran will be handed over to the U.S.,” he added.
He also mentioned that two of the Iranian prisoners will remain in the U.S.
Iran’s Central Bank chief, Mohammad Reza Farzin, subsequently confirmed that over 5.5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) had been received in Qatar. It is worth noting that Iran had initially anticipated receiving up to $7 billion.
Washington has refrained from making any comments on the announcement thus far. The timing of the planned exchange is noteworthy, as it precedes the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, during which Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, known for his hard-line stance, will deliver a speech.
A Qatar Airways plane, as per flight-tracking data analyzed by the AP, arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Monday morning. While Qatar Airways typically flies to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport for commercial flights, previous prisoner releases have occurred at Mehrabad.
Kanaani’s announcement comes weeks after Iran stated that five Iranian-Americans had been transferred from prison to house arrest as a goodwill gesture. Meanwhile, Seoul permitted the conversion of the frozen assets, held in South Korean won, to euros.
The planned exchange is taking place amidst a significant military buildup by the U.S. in the Persian Gulf. There are concerns that American forces might board and safeguard commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial waterway through which 20% of global oil shipments pass.
Moreover, the deal has drawn fresh criticism towards U.S. President Joe Biden from Republicans and others, who argue that the administration is indirectly aiding the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses an increasing threat to American troops and Middle Eastern allies. These concerns could have repercussions for Biden’s reelection campaign.
On the U.S. side, Washington has confirmed that the swap will involve Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage. Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist, and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent, have also received 10-year prison sentences. The charges against all three prisoners have garnered widespread criticism from their families, activists, and the U.S. government.
U.S. officials have refrained from disclosing the identities of the fourth and fifth prisoners.
Iran is seeking the release of five prisoners, primarily detained for their alleged attempts to export banned materials, including dual-use electronics with military applications, to Iran.
The funds transferred represent money owed by South Korea to Iran for oil purchased prior to the U.S. imposing sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
Following the transfer to Qatar, the U.S. states that the funds will be placed in restricted accounts and can only be utilized to purchase humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. Such transactions are currently sanctioned by the U.S. in an effort to contain Iran’s nuclear advancements.
Most Iranian government officials have concurred with this explanation. However, some hard-liners have insisted, baselessly, that there will be no restrictions on how Tehran may spend the money.
Iran and the U.S. have a history of prisoner exchanges dating back to the 1979 U.S. Embassy siege and hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution. The most recent significant exchange occurred in 2016 when Iran reached an agreement with world powers to curtail its nuclear program in exchange for eased sanctions.
Four American captives, including journalist Jason Rezaian of The Washington Post, were repatriated from Iran at that time, while several Iranians in the U.S. also regained their freedom. On the same day, the Obama administration airlifted $400 million in cash to Tehran.
The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners, especially those with dual nationality, as bargaining chips, a claim Tehran denies.
Efforts to negotiate a major prisoner swap stalled after former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the nuclear deal in 2018. Since then, a series of attacks and ship seizures attributed to Iran have contributed to heightened tensions.
Iran’s nuclear program now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. While the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has cautioned that Iran possesses enough enriched uranium to produce “several” atomic bombs, additional time would be required to construct a weapon and potentially miniaturize it for missile deployment, should Iran elect to pursue such a course.
Iran contends that its nuclear program is intended for peaceful purposes, and the U.S. intelligence community maintains its assessment that Iran is not actively pursuing a nuclear bomb.
Recent months have seen Iran take measures to address some issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nonetheless, the advancements in Iran’s nuclear program have raised concerns about a potentially broader regional conflict. Israel, a nuclear power itself, has declared that it will not permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel previously carried out strikes against Iraq and Syria to thwart their nuclear ambitions, further underscoring the gravity of its threat. Additionally, Israel is suspected of carrying out targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Iran also supplies Russia with bomb-carrying drones, which Moscow employs in its attacks on Ukrainian sites during its conflict with Kyiv. The Ukraine conflict represents another significant point of contention between Tehran and Washington.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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