Iran released five Americans as part of a prisoner-swap deal Washington hopes will ease tension in the Middle East and could eventually lead to a resumption of talks to reverse Tehran’s nuclear work.
(Bloomberg) — Iran released five Americans as part of a prisoner-swap deal Washington hopes will ease tension in the Middle East and could eventually lead to a resumption of talks to reverse Tehran’s nuclear work.
The detainees left Tehran on Monday around 4:30 p.m. local time on a Qatari plane headed for Doha, Iranian state media said. They are expected to then be handed over to US officials. Five Iranians imprisoned in America are also set to be freed.
Among those headed to Qatar is Siamak Namazi, who had been held in Iran’s Evin Prison in Tehran since 2015. The five will now return to the US.
US officials are also bringing home two of the detainees’ relatives who had been prevented from leaving Iran, according to senior administration officials.
The moves follow months of mostly secret diplomacy between Tehran and Washington, the talks conducted via interlocutors such as Oman and Qatar. Under their agreement, the US has allowed Iran to access $6 billion of oil money frozen in South Korean banks due to sanctions.
Iran’s oil exports have soared amid the latest diplomatic push, with most shipments headed to China. Some US officials have privately acknowledged they’ve gradually relaxed enforcement of energy sanctions on Tehran.
While US officials say there are no other negotiations underway, Washington hopes to clear the way for broader diplomacy aimed at imposing restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The US and allies including Israel worry Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon, which could trigger an arms race in the region. Tehran has always said its atomic program is purely for peaceful purposes.
In recent months, Iran has slowed its production of near weapons-grade uranium, the latest in a series of signals it may be ready to re-enter wider talks. Still, plenty of tension remains and over the weekend the UN’s nuclear watchdog accused it of denying access for some inspectors.
Discussions on Iran’s atomic work are “possible” via intermediaries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York this week, the Iranian foreign ministry said on Monday.
In August, Iran moved the Americans out of prison to house arrest. The Biden administration argued the deal was the only way to get the US citizens out and the oil revenues would be only used for humanitarian goods and medicine, though Iran has said it can spend them as it wishes.
The US acknowledges it won’t be viable to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which set bounds on Tehran’s uranium enrichment but was abandoned by President Donald Trump in 2018. Iran has rapidly increased its enrichment in the five years since then.
Critics, mainly among Republicans, have said Biden gave away too much and shouldn’t have struck an agreement with a government that’s accused of funding attacks on Americans and grave human-rights abuses.
Iran Braces for Protests on Anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s Death
The swap happened almost exactly a year after the death of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly flouting Islamic dress codes. That set off months of nationwide protests.
The Swiss ambassador to Iran, who represents US interests in the country, traveled with the freed Americans to Doha.
The next stage of the deal will see the release from US custody of five Iranian nationals who have either been convicted or are awaiting trial. Some of those individuals, who have legal authorization to remain in the US, may choose to do so following their release, according to US officials familiar with the negotiations.
–With assistance from Jonathan Tirone and Patrick Sykes.
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