Middle East

US agrees to release $6bn in Iran funds as part of deal to free detained Americans

The Biden administration has issued a waiver to allow the transfer of $6bn in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar as part of a deal to free five Americans detained in Iran.

The deal also involves the freeing of five Iranian citizens imprisoned in the US, mostly for sanctions-busting offenses.

The waiver allowing international banks to transfer the Iranian funds was signed by the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, late last week, and Congress was informed on Monday.

Under the deal, the money, frozen revenues from past sales of Iranian oil, will be sent to Qatar’s central bank, from where it can be disbursed for the purchase of humanitarian goods for Iran.

As part of the preparation for the deal, four of the US nationals held by Iran were transferred from jail to house arrest last month. The fifth detainee was already under house arrest.

A state department spokesperson said the waiver represented the technical approval of a transfer that had been already been announced.

“Secretary Blinken signed a waiver last week enabling the effectuation of this transfer. It was a critical step in securing the release of these five US citizens,” the spokesperson said. “This waiver allows for the transfer of funds from one location to another but does not change the fact that they can only be used to fund Iran’s purchases of humanitarian goods … These funds will be moved to restricted accounts in Qatar, and the United States will have oversight as to how and when these funds are used.”

The US detainees include Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old Iranian-American businessman, who was detained in 2015 while he was visiting his parents, and sentenced to 10 years in jail for supposedly collaborating with a foreign government; Emad Sharghi, a 58-year-old businessman sentenced in 2020 to 10 years in prison on spying charges while traveling around the country with his wife; and Morad Tahbaz, 68, a UK-born businessman and wildlife conservationist jailed for 10 years on charges of “contacts with the US government.” The two other US detainees have not been identified.

The charges against the detainees have been vague, and the trials were often conducted without lawyers. Sometimes defendants were convicted at trials they were not allowed to attend.

Sina Azodi, a lecturer on international affairs at George Washington University, said: “These are five US detainees who have been held unjustly for years and they finally get to reunite with their families. At the same time, Iran gets access to its own money. It’s not coming from taxpayers’ money, so in a sense the US is getting its hostages for free.”

“Iran gets access to its own money for purposes that should have been exempt from sanctions regardless, because US law provides for exemptions for food and medicine. So it’s a good deal for everybody.”

According to the Al-Monitor, citing the Iranian mission to the UN, the Iranian prisoners to be released are Mehrdad Moein Ansari, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, and Amin Hasanzadeh, all of whom were convicted of sending prohibited equipment or confidential information to Iran, and Kaveh Afrasiabi, a Boston-based political scientist and author, charged in 2021 with failing to register as a foreign agent acting on Iran’s behalf.

The deal with Iran is likely to be controversial in the US at a time when Iran is arming Russia in support of its invasion of Ukraine, supplying large quantities of drones that are being used to bomb civilian targets, and there is no agreement on the scope of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Mariano Grossi, also complained there was decreasing pressure on Iran’s over its lack of cooperation with the agency.

Addressing the IAEA board of governors on Monday, Grossi said there had been no progress in talks with Tehran over its removal of IAEA monitoring equipment from sensitive sites, and the failure to explain the discovery of highly enriched uranium particles by IAEA inspectors.

Grossi described a “decrease in interest” among IAEA member states, without naming them.

“There is a certain routinisation of what is going on there, and I am concerned about this, because the issues are as valid today as they were before,” he told reporters on the first day of the board of governors’ meeting in Vienna.


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