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The US and Iran have completed an exchange of prisoners after months of negotiations, a breakthrough that Washington hopes will open the door to a de-escalation of tensions between the arch-foes.
In a carefully sequenced process, five American-Iranian dual nationals, as well as two relatives, landed in Qatar on Monday after being released by the Islamic republic. They were greeted by officials and family members after landing in Doha. The US has also freed five Iranians from American prisons.
The exchange took place after $6bn in Iran’s oil revenue, 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 appropriately.
Qatari officials had confirmed to both parties that the $6bn has been 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 it will help build a degree of trust that creates conditions for further discussions on Iran’s muscular nuclear programme.
The swap “does remove an obstacle” to further diplomacy on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues, said a senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration. “We do not close the door entirely to diplomacy,” the official said. “If we see an opportunity, we will explore it.”
The US and Iran have also been discussing how to de-escalate tensions and contain the nuclear issue even as Tehran has continued to enrich uranium. This includes Iran agreeing not to target Americans and to cap its uranium enrichment at 60 per cent purity, a level close to weapons grade.
Iran, in return, expects Washington to refrain from imposing additional sanctions that further strangle the economy.
The US has also been pushing 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 exporting weapons to Russia to use in the war, and no agreement has yet been reached, said people briefed on the talks.
Still, some believe the prisoner exchange can at least help contain a nuclear crisis and ease the risks of renewed Middle East conflict.
“The release of Iranian hostages was a key first step for the Biden administration to manage and contain a cascade of crises relating to Iran’s advancing and unconstrained nuclear programme in advance of the US election year,” said Sanam Vakil, Middle East director at Chatham House. “Moreover Biden can show that he did live up to his promise of bringing unjustly detained American citizens home.”
The crisis has been simmering dangerously since then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord 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 took office have floundered and few believe the accord can be saved given the scale of Iran’s nuclear advances.
US officials say Iran has the capacity to produce enough fissile material required to develop a nuclear weapon in about two weeks.
Analysts say the best hope for the Biden administration is to contain the crisis, and seek 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 unfreezing of the $6bn will provide some vital hard currency as the country grapples with an economic malaise, with inflation soaring above 40 per cent.
The US also wants Iran to improve its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the republic’s nuclear activity.
But the signals out of Tehran have been mixed, with signs that it has slowed the pace at which it is enriching uranium close to weapons grade, while continuing to frustrate the IAEA in other areas.
The nuclear watchdog last week condemned Iran for barring IAEA inspectors from taking part in its monitoring programme.
The Iranian-American dual nationals to released from Iran include Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi and two others who did not wish to be identified.
Namazi is an American-Iranian businessman who was arrested about eight years ago and sentenced to 10 years in jail on allegations of collaborating with the US against the Islamic republic. Tahbaz is a businessman and environmental activist who holds Iranian, US and British nationalities. Shargi is an Iranian-American businessman. Both were arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in jail 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, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, 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.