©Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The flags of Iran and the US are printed on paper in this illustration created on January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
By Parisa Hafezi and Andrew Mills
DUBAI/DOHA (Reuters) – When $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian funds is transferred to banks in Qatar as early as next week, it will set in motion a carefully choreographed sequence that will see as many as five detained U.S. dual citizens leave Iran and a similar number of Iranian prisoners held in the US are flying home, according to eight Iranian and other sources familiar with the negotiations who spoke to Reuters.
In a first step, Iran released four U.S. citizens from Tehran’s Evin Prison under house arrest on August 10, joining a fifth already under house arrest. Later that day, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the move the first step in a process that would lead to their return home.
They include businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, as well as environmental activist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who is also a British national, the US government said. The Tahbaz and Shargi families did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for the Namazi family declined to comment.
The identities of the fourth and fifth Americans, one of whom according to two sources is a woman, have not been released. Reuters was unable to determine which Iranian prisoners would in turn be exchanged by the US
At the center of the negotiations that brought about this deal between the superpower that Iran labels the “Great Satan” and the Islamic Republic that Washington calls a state sponsor of terrorism is the small but enormously wealthy state of Qatar.
Doha hosted at least eight rounds of talks with Iranian and American negotiators sitting in separate hotels and talking via shuttle diplomacy, a source briefed on the discussions said. The earlier sessions focused mainly on the thorny nuclear issue and the later ones on the release of prisoners.
Doha will implement a financial arrangement under which it will pay bank fees and monitor how Iran spends the unfrozen money to ensure that no money is spent on items covered by US sanctions, and that the detainees will travel through Qatar when they be exchanged, according to three of the sources. .
“Iran initially wanted direct access to the funds but eventually agreed to access through Qatar,” a senior diplomat said. “Iran will buy food and medicine and Qatar will pay directly.”
Reuters has compiled this account of previously unreported details about the extent of Qatari mediation in the secret talks, how the deal unfolded and the expediency that motivated both sides to strike the prisoner swap deal. Reuters interviewed four Iranian officials, two US sources, a senior Western diplomat, a Gulf government adviser and the person familiar with the negotiations.
All sources requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of a deal that has not yet been fully implemented.
A State Department spokesperson said the US is not yet ready to announce the exact timing of prisoner releases. The ministry also declined to discuss the details of what the spokesperson called “an ongoing and highly sensitive negotiation.”
‘YOU CAN BUILD TRUST’
The US government has not commented on the timing of the money transfer. However, on September 5, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said efforts were underway to transfer Iranian funds.
“The relationship between the US and Iran is not characterized by trust. We judge Iran on its actions and nothing else,” the Foreign Ministry spokesperson added.
Washington has agreed to move Iranian funds from South Korea to limited accounts of financial institutions in Qatar, but no money will go directly to Iran, the spokesman added.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the details of the negotiations, Qatar’s role in the talks or the terms of the final agreement.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry and its U.N. mission did not respond to detailed questions about this story.
The sources’ account of the negotiations shows how the deal sidestepped the key US-Iran dispute over Iran’s nuclear objectives, culminating in a rare moment of cooperation between the longtime adversaries, who were at odds on a host of issues , from Iran’s nuclear program to Iran’s nuclear objectives. US military presence in the Gulf.
Ties between the US and Iran have been at a boiling point since Donald Trump abandoned a nuclear deal with Iran as US president in 2018. Reaching a new nuclear deal has gained little traction since then, as President Joe Biden prepares for the 2024 US elections.
The State Department spokesperson also said there has been no change in Washington’s overall approach toward Iran, “which remains focused on deterrence, pressure and diplomacy.”
Once the money is transferred, it will be held in restricted accounts in Qatar, and the US will monitor how and when these funds are used, the State Department spokesperson added.
The possible transfer has drawn Republican criticism that Biden, a Democrat, is essentially paying ransoms for American citizens. But Blinken told reporters on August 10 that the deal does not mean Iran would receive any sanctions relief, explaining that Washington would “continue to resolutely oppose Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.”
The Qatari-led mediation gained momentum in June 2023, the source briefed on the discussions said, adding that at least eight rounds of talks have been held since March 2022, with earlier rounds mainly devoted to the nuclear issue and later to prisoners.
“They all realized that nuclear negotiations are a dead end and shifted the focus to prisoners. Prisoners are simpler. It is easy to get and you can build trust,” he said. “This is when things got serious again.”
PRISONERS WILL CONTINUE TO QATAR
The Iranian, diplomatic and regional sources said that once the money reaches Qatar from South Korea via Switzerland, Qatari officials will instruct Tehran and Washington to proceed with the release under the terms of a document to be agreed by both sides in late July or early August and Qatar has been signed. . Reuters has not seen the document.
The transfer to Qatar’s banks is expected to be completed as early as next week if all goes according to plan, the source briefed on the talks said. Reuters was unable to identify the banks involved.
“American prisoners will fly from Tehran to Qatar and Iranian prisoners will fly from the US to Qatar and then be transferred to Iran,” the source told Reuters.
According to two Iranian insiders, the source briefed on the negotiations and the senior Western diplomat, the most complex part of the talks was setting up a mechanism to ensure transparency in money transfers and respect for US sanctions. The $6 billion in Iranian assets – the proceeds from oil sales – were frozen under sweeping US oil and financial sanctions on Iran. Then President Trump reimposed sanctions in 2018 when he withdrew Washington from a deal that had limited Iran’s nuclear program.
Topics discussed included how to ensure that Iran spends the money only on humanitarian goods and how to obtain guarantees from Qatar on monitoring the process.
“To save the negotiations from collapsing, Qatar has pledged to cover the banking costs for transferring the money from Seoul to Switzerland and then to Qatari banks, while also taking responsibility for monitoring the expenditure.” , an Iranian insider said about the talks. Reuters.
The governors of the central banks of Iran and Qatar met in Doha on June 14 to discuss the money transfer, a second Iranian insider and the source briefed on the talks said.
The Central Bank of Iran and the Central Bank of Qatar declined to comment.
The talks were led by US Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley – who is now on unpaid leave as his security clearance is under review – as well as US Deputy Special Envoy Abram Paley and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, an Iranian said official: two sources informed about the negotiations and the Western diplomat.
Mehdi Safari, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs, joined the Iranian delegation at two meetings in Qatar for talks on the cash transfer, a senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters. Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Al-Khulaifi was the intermediary.
Malley declined to comment. Paley, Kani and Al Khulaifi could not be immediately reached for comment.