U.S. Reaches Deal With Iran to Free Americans for Jailed Iranians and Funds
The United States and Iran have reached an agreement to win the freedom of five imprisoned Americans in exchange for several jailed Iranians and eventual access to about $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue, according to several people familiar with the deal.
As a first step in the agreement, which comes after more than two years of quiet negotiations, Iran has released into house arrest five Iranian American dual citizens, according to the lawyer for one of the prisoners.
“The move by Iran of the American hostages from Evin Prison to house arrest is an important development,” said Jared Genser, the lawyer for Siamak Namazi, one of the Americans released on Thursday.
In addition to Mr. Namazi, the prisoners are Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz, who had all been imprisoned on unsubstantiated charges of spying, as well as two others whose families withheld their names. One of the unnamed Americans is a scientist, and the other is a businessman, according to two people briefed on the arrangements of the release.
The three named prisoners and one other person were transferred on Thursday from Evin Prison, one of the most notorious detention centers in Iran, to a hotel in Tehran, the capital, where they will be held for several weeks until they are allowed to board an airplane, Mr. Genser said. One other prisoner, an American woman, had been released into house arrest earlier, according to several people familiar with the arrangements.
“While I hope this will be the first step to their ultimate release, this is at best the beginning of the end and nothing more,” Mr. Genser said in a statement. “But there are simply no guarantees about what happens from here.”
He said the Americans were told they would be held at the hotel under guard by Iranian officials.
Biden administration officials declined to comment or to confirm details about what Iran will get in return. But the people familiar with the agreement said that when the Americans are allowed to return to the United States, the Biden administration will release a handful of Iranian nationals serving prison sentences for violating sanctions on Iran.
The United States will also transfer nearly $6 billion of Iran’s assets in South Korea, putting the funds into an account in the central bank of Qatar, according to the people familiar with the deal. The account will be controlled by the government of Qatar and regulated so Iran can gain access to the money only to pay vendors for humanitarian purchases such as medicine and food, they said.
The deal with Iran — a bitter adversary of the United States — is the latest in a series of high-profile prisoner swaps engineered in secret by the Biden administration in an effort to bring home Americans whom the State Department deems wrongfully detained in foreign countries.
Mr. Namazi, 51, was given a 10-year sentence and has been held in Evin Prison since 2015 on charges of “collaborating with a hostile state.” Mr. Sharghi, a businessman, was sentenced in 2020 to 10 years in prison on charges of spying. Mr. Tahbaz, a conservationist who was arrested in 2018, was sentenced to 10 years on charges of having “contacts with the U.S. government.”
All have denied the charges, and the United States has said the three were wrongfully detained.
The prisoner exchange deal was nearly completed in March but stalled when Iran detained one of the unnamed U.S. dual citizens, according to two Iranians close to the government who were familiar with the agreement. The United States demanded that the prisoner also be included, but Iran initially refused, the two Iranians said.
A fifth U.S. dual citizen was also released from custody, according to the people familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the final deal.
John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in May that “there are wrongfully detained Americans elsewhere around the world, and we’re working on that very, very hard.”
People familiar with the negotiations between the United States and Iran, which were mediated by Oman, Qatar and Switzerland, said the final deal took shape in recent months and that all sides had been working on the logistics for weeks.
Unlike previous prison swap deals when detainees immediately boarded a plane out of Iran, this exchange will take place in a series of coordinated steps, according to Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, who is familiar with the terms of the deal.
The Americans will be allowed to leave Iran once the money arrives in the Qatari bank account, a process expected to take four to six weeks because of the complexity of licensing and sanctions exemptions paperwork required for moving a large sum belonging to Iran, Mr. Vaez said. The detainees are expected to be taken to Doha, the Qatari capital, on a government airplane provided by the country because of the central role it has played in brokering the deal, he said.
The Iranians detained in the United States can also leave for Doha for the exchange. But it is unclear whether they would want to because many live in the United States with their families and do not intend to return to Iran, Mr. Vaez said.
A key part of the agreement has been the Biden administration’s willingness to unfreeze $6 billion of Iran’s oil revenue held in South Korea.
The release of the Iranian funds is likely to be contentious in the United States. Republicans have repeatedly condemned the idea of allowing Iran to have direct access to its frozen financial assets, which could end up in the hands of its elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and be used to fund and arm militants across the Middle East.
In 2016, President Barack Obama settled a dispute with Tehran over a $400 million arms deal as part of an agreement to release four American citizens detained in Iran. Republicans assailed the conclusion of negotiations to limit the country’s nuclear ambitions as well as the settlement, calling it a ransom payment — an accusation Mr. Obama denied.
The people familiar with the new arrangement said the transfer of funds to allow Iran access for humanitarian purposes is not unprecedented.
Iran has opened similar accounts in more than a half-dozen other countries to accept payments for oil purchases from those governments despite U.S. sanctions that blocked the country from gaining access to the money for most purposes. Over the years, Iran has managed to spend funds held in India, Turkey and elsewhere as a result of exceptions to the sanctions for humanitarian needs.
Mr. Vaez said the Treasury Department had spent many months ensuring that the funds could be used only for humanitarian purposes.
“All Iran can do under this deal is submit orders to a bank in Doha for food and medicine and a limited number of medical equipment that do not have dual military use,” Mr. Vaez said. “The bank in Doha would pay for the goods, and Qatari companies would deliver them to Iran. Iran has no direct access to the funds at all.”
“The Biden administration has a strong argument,” Mr. Vaez added. “If you are against this deal, you are against Americans coming back home and you are against Iranian people having access to food and medicine.”
People familiar with the discussions said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Brett H. McGurk, the coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the White House, met with officials in Oman in early May to discuss a prisoner swap with Iran.
The breakthrough comes as Washington and Tehran remain unable — despite extensive efforts — to reach an agreement to address tensions around Iran’s advancing nuclear program and heavy U.S. sanctions. More than a year of talks to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which President Donald J. Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018, collapsed last summer.
While in Oman, Mr. McGurk led indirect talks with Iranian officials, with a goal of reaching an informal agreement under which Iran would cap its enrichment of uranium material to a level below what was needed to fashion a nuclear weapon and to limit its military aid to Russia, among other objectives. In return, the United States would agree not to tighten sanctions or pursue certain other punitive measures against Iran in international forums.
U.S. officials have long insisted that their diplomacy to free imprisoned Americans is not directly connected to talks related to Iran’s nuclear program. Analysts say additional progress by Iran toward a nuclear weapon could prompt military action by Israel, the United States or both countries. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and denies it is pursuing a bomb.
In late May, the sultan of Oman went to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader. They discussed a swap, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Mr. Biden has made bringing home detainees a priority during his first years in office. In March, the United States secured the release of Paul Rusesabagina, a human rights activist detained in Rwanda. In December, Russia agreed to release Brittney Griner, an American basketball star, in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the Merchant of Death.
But others remain in detention. In March, Russia accused the Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of espionage and detained him. Mr. Biden has said his administration is working on the release of Mr. Gershkovich.
The Biden administration’s recent Iran diplomacy has been complicated by the absence of its Iran envoy, Robert Malley, who was placed on unpaid leave in late June amid a review of his security clearance. The State Department has not explained the reason for the review.
Michael Crowley contributed reporting from Washington.
Farnaz Fassihi is a reporter for The New York Times based in New York. Previously she was a senior writer and war correspondent for the Wall Street Journal for 17 years based in the Middle East. More about Farnaz Fassihi
Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of the team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.” More about Michael D. Shear
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