Qatar-mediated deal: US and Iran biggest prisoners’ swap in 40 years

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On Monday, five American detainees departed from Iran in exchange for five Iranians held in the United States, marking a rare agreement between these long-standing adversaries. This deal also resulted in the release of $6 billion in Tehran’s frozen funds.

A plane provided by mediator Qatar transported the five U.S. citizens, along with two of their relatives, out of Tehran immediately after both sides received confirmation that the funds had been transferred to accounts in Doha. Concurrently, two of the five Iranians arrived in Qatar, according to a U.S. official. Three of them have chosen not to return to Iran.

The five Americans with dual nationality are scheduled to fly to Doha and subsequently return to the United States.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Nasser Kanaani, explained that two of the released Iranians would return to Iran, while two others would remain in the U.S. upon their request. One detainee would join his family in another country.

Kanaani also assured that the funds, which had been blocked in South Korea due to U.S. sanctions against Iran in 2018, would be accessible to Tehran on Monday. Under the terms of the deal, Qatar will ensure that the funds are used for humanitarian purposes and not for items subject to U.S. sanctions.

This agreement, which followed months of negotiations in Qatar, resolves a significant source of tension between the U.S., which labels Tehran as a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which refers to Washington as the “Great Satan.” Nevertheless, they continue to have profound disagreements on various issues, including Iran’s nuclear programme, its influence in the region, U.S. sanctions, and America’s military presence in the Gulf.

A senior U.S. administration official clarified that this deal does not alter Washington’s adversarial relationship with Tehran. However, it leaves the door open for diplomacy regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

This deal is another diplomatic success for Qatar. Doha facilitated a series of talks between Iranian and U.S. negotiators, who were situated in separate hotels, engaging in shuttle diplomacy.

The transfer of Iran’s funds as part of this agreement has faced criticism from U.S. Republicans who argue that President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is effectively paying a ransom for U.S. citizens. The White House, however, has defended the agreement.

Among the U.S. dual citizens to be released are Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. They were released from prison and placed under house arrest last month.

A fourth U.S. citizen was also released into house arrest, while the identity of the fifth individual under house arrest has not been disclosed.

Iranian officials have identified the five Iranians to be released by the U.S. as Mehrdad Moin-Ansari, Kambiz Attar-Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, Amin Hassanzadeh, and Kaveh Afrasiabi. Two Iranian officials had previously indicated that Afrasiabi would remain in the United States, but they did not mention the fate of the others.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have simmered since former President Donald Trump, a Republican, withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Progress toward a new nuclear deal has been limited, with President Biden preparing for the 2024 U.S. election.

As an initial step in the agreement, the United States waived sanctions to enable the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar. These funds had been blocked in South Korea, typically one of Iran’s largest oil customers, due to sweeping financial sanctions imposed by Washington, which prevented the funds from being transferred.

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