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The US and Iran are on the verge of completing a prisoner exchange after months of negotiations, a breakthrough that Washington hopes will open the door to a de-escalation of tensions between the arch-enemies.
In a carefully sequenced process, five American-Iranian dual nationals, as well as two family members, landed in Qatar on Monday after being released by the Islamic republic, a person briefed on the matter said. The US also plans to free five Iranians from American prisons.
The exchange comes after $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues, which had been frozen in South Korea, was transferred to bank accounts in Qatar, where the funds will be monitored to ensure they are used properly.
Qatar officials had confirmed to both sides that the $6 billion was transferred from South Korea, via Switzerland, to bank accounts in Qatar, the person briefed on the process told the Financial Times.
The release of the prisoners comes after months of indirect talks between the US and Iran, facilitated by Qatar and Oman. The hope is that this will help build a degree of trust that will create the conditions for further discussions about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The swap “removes an obstacle” to further diplomacy on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues, a senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration said. “We are not completely closing the door on diplomacy,” the official said. “If we see an opportunity, we will explore it.”
The US and Iran have also discussed how to de-escalate tensions and manage the nuclear issue, even as Tehran has continued to enrich uranium. This includes Iran agreeing not to target Americans and limiting its uranium enrichment to 60 percent purity, a level below weapons grade.
In return, Iran expects Washington to refrain from imposing additional sanctions that would further strangle the economy.
The US has also pressured Tehran to stop selling drones and spare parts to Moscow, which Russian forces have used in the war in Ukraine, an Iranian official previously told the FT. Tehran denies it is exporting weapons to Russia for use in the war, and no agreement has yet been reached, people briefed on the talks said.
Still, some believe that prisoner exchanges could at least help contain a nuclear crisis and reduce the risks of a new conflict in the Middle East.
“The release of Iranian hostages was an important first step for the Biden administration to manage and manage a series of crises involving Iran’s advancing and unchecked nuclear program ahead of the U.S. election year,” said Sanam Vakil, Director Middle East at Chatham House. . “Additionally, Biden can show that he has delivered on his promise to bring wrongfully incarcerated American citizens home.”
The crisis has been simmering dangerously since US President Donald Trump unilaterally canceled the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers and imposed hundreds of sanctions on Iran, which has strangled the republic’s economy.
Diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 deal after the Biden administration came to power have failed and few believe the deal can be saved given the extent of Iran’s nuclear progress.
U.S. officials say Iran has the capacity to produce enough fissile material needed to develop a nuclear weapon in about two weeks.
Analysts say the Biden administration’s best hope is to curb the crisis and try to return to serious nuclear negotiations if the US president secures a second term. “The larger issue of the Biden administration’s Iran policy, beyond campaign promises and crisis management, remains unclear,” Vakil said.
For Iran, the release of the $6 billion will provide crucial hard currency as the country grapples with an economic slump, with inflation soaring above 40 percent.
The US also wants Iran to improve its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees the republic’s nuclear activities.
But signals from Tehran are mixed, with signs that the country has slowed the pace at which it is enriching uranium to near weapons-grade grades, while continuing to frustrate the IAEA in other areas.
The nuclear watchdog condemned Iran last week for banning IAEA inspectors from participating in the monitoring program.
The Iranian-American dual citizens released from Iran include Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi and two others who did not want to be identified.
Namazi is an American-Iranian businessman who was arrested about eight years ago and sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of collaborating with the US against the Islamic republic. Tahbaz is a businessman and environmentalist of Iranian, American and British nationality. Shargi is an Iranian-American businessman. Both were arrested in 2018 and sentenced to ten years in prison on similar charges of collaborating with the US.
The identities of the Iranians to be released from US prisons have not been released. Nasser Kanaani, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said two of the Iranians held in the US would return to the Islamic republic, while another would go to a third country, and two would remain in the US.