The US cleared the way for $6 billion in oil proceeds to be returned to Iran and agreed to release five Iranians as part of a secretly negotiated deal that will clear the way for five American citizens detained in Iran to return home.
(Bloomberg) — The US cleared the way for $6 billion in oil proceeds to be returned to Iran and agreed to release five Iranians as part of a secretly negotiated deal that will clear the way for five American citizens detained in Iran to return home.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken notified Congress on Monday of a waiver that will let German, Irish, Qatari, South Korean and Swiss banks transfer the $6 billion from South Korea without fear of running afoul of US sanctions.
He said the $6 billion would be held in restricted accounts in Qatar, where it will be “available only for humanitarian trade,” according to a copy of the notification. Iran has previously said it will be free to decide how it spends the money.
The letter to Congress didn’t say when the prisoner exchange would take place. Iran wants access to the funds first. Economy Minister Ehsan Khandouzi said on Tuesday that the transfers are underway, adding that the government would assess by late September whether the US has fulfilled its side of the deal.
Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in a statement that “what is being pursued here is an arrangement wherein we secure the release of five wrongfully held Americans. This remains a sensitive and ongoing process. While this is a step in the process, no individuals have been or will be released into US custody this week.”
American officials had announced the broad outlines of the deal in early August after Iran moved four US citizens from prison to house arrest. The American prisoners include Siamak Namazi, who has been held in Tehran’s Evin prison since October 2015.
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At the time, US officials declined to describe details of the deal, saying that revealing more risked upsetting a delicate process that could still fall apart. They were also wary of acknowledging talks with a regime that has escalated human rights abuses and continues to supply weapons and other materiel to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Blinken signed the waiver on Friday. A State Department spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, said the Biden administration isn’t lifting any sanctions on Iran or providing any sanctions relief as part of the deal.
People familiar with the matter have said that the US and Iran have been engaged for months in tentative and secretive diplomacy that’s seen the two sides inch toward an informal understanding under which Tehran would free the Americans and potentially slow or limit its enrichment of uranium.
US officials have privately acknowledged they’ve already begun to relax enforcement of sanctions on oil sales, allowing Tehran to boost production. Iran, which has some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, has been shipping the most crude to China in a decade in recent months.
The talks are part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to restore at least some of the restrictions Iran agreed to under a 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Then-President Donald Trump quit the JCPOA in 2018.
Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have been critical of the Biden administration’s bid for new diplomacy with Iran, saying it will only encourage the regime to jail more Americans and press ahead with its nuclear development. Iran denies that it has any plan to acquire a nuclear weapon.
“We have kept Congress extensively informed” and there are additional briefings scheduled for this week, Watson of the National Security Council said.
–With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Arsalan Shahla.
(Updates with Iranian comment in third and fourth paragraphs.)
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