Tehran, Iran – A prisoner exchange deal between Iran and the United States looks like it’s on track, promising to release 10 people and billions of dollars of frozen assets.
Tehran and Washington both appear committed to the agreement reached a month ago after years of negotiations through mediators.
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So, what is the agreement, how will it work, and what happens next?
What is the agreement?
The agreement was reached in August, and both sides have confirmed a number of key details.
As part of the deal, five US prisoners held in Iran will be exchanged with five Iranians held by the US, and Iran will gain access to roughly $6bn of its assets frozen abroad.
Talks over exchanging prisoners were running in parallel to indirect negotiations aimed at restoring Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that the US unilaterally abandoned in 2018.
During the lengthy talks that began over two years ago, the two sides at some points appeared interested in reaching a deal over both the nuclear and the prisoner issues, but the nuclear accord talks fell through and have remained in limbo since last year.
Tehran and Washington had also repeatedly blamed each other for delays in reaching a shared understanding over a prisoner exchange. The outlines of an agreement appeared to have been reached months ago, but the final technical agreements had not been finalised.
How will it work?
As part of the deal, Iran released four of the five Americans from prison last month and moved them to house arrest. A fifth prisoner had already been moved to house arrest.
Of the five, the identities of three are confirmed, all having been arrested over charges of espionage and cooperation with a foreign government.
They include Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old Iranian-American businessman who had been held in Tehran’s Evin Prison since October 2015. He is the son of Baquer Namazi, an 86-year-old Iranian-American who was also imprisoned for years but was released with Omani mediation last October due to medical concerns.
A second prisoner, Emad Sharghi, is a 59-year-old businessman, and the third is 67-year-old environmentalist Morad Tahbaz. Both were arrested in 2018.
The identities of the two remaining prisoners have been kept under wraps, but Western media has reported that one of them is a woman.
Neither side has officially confirmed the identities of the five Iranians held by the US, but Washington-based Al-Monitor reported on Monday that the individuals are Mehrdad Moein Ansari, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, Amin Hasanzadeh, and Kaveh Afrasiabi.
The news outlet said four of them had been charged with violating unilateral US sanctions on Iran, and a fifth with acting as an unregistered foreign agent of the Iranian establishment.
The deal also includes the release of several billions of dollars worth of Iranian money that had been blocked in South Korea for years due to unilateral US sanctions.
The money was initially $7bn, but has now been reduced to $6bn as a result of currency fluctuations.
What happens next?
The Iranian money is believed to have been fully moved to European banks after being exchanged for euros, and will next be transferred to Qatar so Iran can access it.
Both Iranian and American officials have confirmed that the money can only be used to make purchases that are exempt from Washington’s sanctions.
This is while the US had repeatedly claimed that it has exemptions in place for some trade, including humanitarian goods. But banks would not touch the Iranian money for fear of falling afoul of the sanctions.
In another sign that the deal is moving forward, Washington on Monday confirmed it has issued a separate waiver allowing the transfer of the money from banks in Switzerland and Germany to Qatar.
Tehran and Washington are expected to release the prisoners – potentially with Qatari or Omani mediation – after the money has arrived in Qatar and Iran can confirm it has access to it.
Adrienne Watson, the spokesperson for the US National Security Council, said no individuals will be released this week, but reports have indicated an exchange may be expected as early as next week.
The agreement continues to draw the ire of US Republicans and other opponents who criticised the administration of President Joe Biden for making a deal with Iran.
It comes as the West has accused Tehran of supplying Russia with attack drones for the war in Ukraine, and as tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and regional influence linger.
In response to the criticism, the Biden administration emphasised that it is striving to get American “hostages” released and is not using any of Washington’s money to do it.
“This is money that the previous administration allowed Iran to make and keep in special accounts,” Watson said. “They let Iran spend billions of dollars of it and got nothing in return.”