An official has confirmed that five prisoners, who were requested by the U.S. for an exchange with Iran, have departed from Tehran by air.
An official stated that five prisoners, who were being sought by the U.S. for a swap with Iran, departed from Tehran on Monday.
The AP analyzed flight-tracking data and found that a flight operated by Qatar Airways departed from Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been previously used for exchanges. Shortly after, Iranian state media confirmed the departure of the flight from Tehran.
The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the exchange was still in process.
Officials previously stated that the swap would occur once around $6 billion in Iranian assets, which had been frozen, were received by Qatar. This was considered a crucial component of the exchange.
Despite the deal, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the U.S. and Iran, which are locked in various disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, was the first to confirm that the exchange would occur on Monday. He mentioned that the funds, previously held by South Korea, were now located in Qatar.
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Kanaani expressed his thoughts during a news conference that was broadcasted on state television. However, the broadcast abruptly ended right after he finished speaking.
Kanaani expressed gratitude that Iran’s assets, which were previously frozen in South Korea, have now been released. He expressed hope that today the government and the nation will regain full control over these assets.
“I cannot reword”
He mentioned that a pair of Iranian prisoners will remain in the United States.
The official stated that Qatar had informed both Iranian and U.S. officials about the transfer of money to the Gulf Arab nation, which acts as an intermediary between the U.S. and Iran.
Iran’s Central Bank governor, Mohammad Reza Farzin, appeared on state television to confirm the arrival of more than 5.5 billion euros (equivalent to $5.9 billion) in Qatar’s accounts. Iran had previously expected to receive up to $7 billion.
Washington did not comment on the announcement. The planned exchange comes ahead of the convening of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York, where Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.
According to flight-tracking data analyzed by the AP, a plane from Qatar Airways arrived at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Monday morning. Qatar Airways typically operates its commercial flights from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, but past prisoner releases have occurred at Mehrabad.
Kanaani’s statement follows Iran’s recent announcement of transferring five Iranian-Americans from prison to house arrest as a gesture of building trust. Simultaneously, Seoul permitted the conversion of the frozen assets, originally in South Korean won, into euros.
The planned swap has unfolded amid a major American military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of U.S. troops boarding and guarding commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.
The agreement has also exposed U.S. President Joe Biden to new criticism from Republicans and other critics who argue that the administration is aiding the Iranian economy while Iran continues to pose a rising danger to American troops and Middle Eastern allies. This could potentially impact his chances of being reelected.
On the U.S. side, Washington has said the planned swap includes Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence. All of their charges have been widely criticized by their families, activists and the U.S. government.
The fourth and fifth prisoner have not yet been identified by U.S. officials.
Iran has stated that the individuals it is pursuing are primarily detained for their involvement in attempting to transport prohibited items to Iran, specifically dual-use electronics with potential military applications.
The cash represents money South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the U.S. imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The United States asserts that, after arriving in Qatar, the funds will be kept in limited accounts and can solely be utilized for humanitarian purposes like medicine and food. These transactions are presently permitted under American sanctions aimed at the Islamic Republic due to its progress in the nuclear program.
Most Iranian government officials have agreed with this explanation, although a few hard-liners have claimed, without any proof, that there will be no limitations on how Tehran utilizes the funds.
Iran and the United States have a long-standing tradition of exchanging prisoners, which originated from the 1979 U.S. Embassy seizure and hostage crisis that occurred after the Islamic Revolution. In 2016, they had a significant prisoner exchange when Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions by global powers.
At that moment, four Americans who were held captive, including Jason Rezaian, a journalist from the Washington Post, were repatriated from Iran. Additionally, a number of Iranians residing in the United States were also released. Coincidentally, on that very day, the administration of former President Barack Obama transported $400 million in cash to Tehran.
The accusation made by the West is that Iran utilizes foreign prisoners, including those with dual nationality, as a means of negotiation. Tehran denies this allegation.
After the nuclear deal was abandoned by then-President Donald Trump in 2018, negotiations for a significant exchange of prisoners encountered difficulties. Subsequently, starting from the subsequent year, Iran’s alleged involvement in a string of attacks and seizures of ships has heightened tensions.
Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program now enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. While the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile — if Iran decided to pursue one.
Iran asserts that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and the U.S. intelligence community continues to affirm that Iran is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.
In recent months, Iran has made efforts to resolve certain matters with the International Atomic Energy Agency. However, concerns have arisen about a potential escalation in the region due to Iran’s progress in its nuclear program. Israel, which possesses nuclear capabilities, has stated its opposition to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Israel’s history of bombing Iraq and Syria to halt their nuclear programs adds credibility to this threat. Additionally, Israel is believed to be responsible for a series of targeted assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Iran also supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones Moscow uses to target sites in Ukraine in its war on Kyiv, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.
This report was contributed to by Nasser Karimi, a writer from the Associated Press in Tehran, Iran.
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