U.S. clears way for swap of U.S. prisoners in Iran

September 12, 2023

The Biden Administration on Tuesday announced it had cleared the way for the release of five American citizens imprisoned in Iran. 

In exchange for the Americans’ freedom, the U.S. is offering a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money from South Korea to Qatar without fear of U.S. sanctions. Also as part of the deal, the U.S. agreed to release five Iranian citizens detained in the U.S.

The American prisoners include include Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on globally criticized spying charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also slapped with a 10-year sentence.

The State Department had designated the Americans as “wrongfully detained” which shifts a U.S. prisoner in a foreign country to a specialized section of the agency, called the Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs. That office is focused on negotiating for the release of captives.

Last month, reports emerged that the trio of American prisoners, along with another American who’s also been wrongfully detained in Iran, had been moved from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison and placed under house arrest at an Iranian hotel—which was viewed as a major step toward their release.

Then late last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed off on the sanctions waivers, which have drawn criticism from both sides of the political aisle.

Republicans including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, John Thune of South Dakota and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Reps. Elise Stefanik of New York, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Michael McCaul of Texas—along with former President Trump—are blasting the negotiations.

However, Sen. Bob Mendendez (D-NJ), Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, also said he had “cconcerns” that such agreements could encourage nations hostile to the U.S. to take hostages in the future.

The White House has pushed back, saying that the waiver decision was just a “procedural step” within a tentative agreement. 

“This remains a sensitive and ongoing process. While this is a step in the process, no individuals have been or will be released into U.S. custody this week,” noted National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson.

PHOTO (l-r): Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and Morad Tahbaz

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