DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — United States and Iran reached a provisional agreement This week, finally, five Americans detained in Iran and an unknown number of Iranians jailed in the US will be released after billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets are transferred from banks in South Korea to Qatar.
The complex deal, which was finalized after months of proxy negotiations between US and Iranian officials, was announced Thursday as Iran transferred four of the five Americans from prison to house arrest. The fifth American had already been under house arrest.
The details of the money transfer, the timing of its completion, and the eventual release of the American and Iranian prisoners remain unclear. However, US and Iranian officials say they believe the deal could be complete by mid to late September.
A look at what is known about the deal.
WHAT’S INSIDE THERE?
Under the tentative agreement, the US has given its blessing to South Korea to convert frozen Iranian assets there from the South Korean currency, the won, to euros.
That money would then be sent to Qatar, a small, energy-rich nation in the Arabian Peninsula that has been a mediator in the talks. Seoul’s amount could range from $6 billion to $7 billion, depending on exchange rates. The cash represents money South Korea owed Iran, but had not yet paid, for oil purchased before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The US maintains that, once in Qatar, the money will be kept in restricted accounts and can only be used for humanitarian goods, such as medicines and food. Those transactions are currently allowed under US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic for its advanced nuclear program.
Some in Iran have disputed the US claim, saying Tehran will have full control over the funds. Qatar has not publicly commented on how it will control the disbursement of the money.
In exchange, Iran will release the five Iranian-Americans being held as prisoners in the country. They are currently under surveillance at a hotel in Tehran, according to an American lawyer defending one of them.
WHY WILL IT TAKE SO LONG?
Iran does not want the assets frozen in South Korean won, which is less convertible than the euro or the US dollar. US officials say that while South Korea is okay with the transfer, it is concerned that converting $6 or $7 billion worth of won into other currencies at once will negatively affect its exchange rate and economy.
So South Korea is moving slowly, converting smaller amounts of the frozen assets for eventual transfer to Qatar’s central bank. Also, as money is transferred, you should avoid touching the US financial system where you could become subject to US sanctions. Therefore, a complicated and time-consuming series of transfers has been arranged through third-country banks.
“We have worked extensively with the South Koreans on this and there is no impediment to moving the account from South Korea to Qatar,” US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on Friday.
In Doha, Qatari Minister of State Mohammed Abdulaziz al-Khulaifi said: “What we have achieved in this agreement reflects the confidence of these parties in the State of Qatar as a neutral mediator and international partner to resolve international disputes by peaceful means. ”. He did not address how the money would be controlled.
WHO ARE THE DETAINED IRAN-AMERICANS?
The identities of three of the five prisoners. have been made public. It is unclear who the other two are. The US government has described them as wanting to keep their identities private, and Iran has not named them either.
The three acquaintances are Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on internationally criticized espionage charges. Another is Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist serving a 10-year sentence.
The third is Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence.
Those who advocate for their release describe them as unjustly detained and innocent. Iran has used prisoners with Western ties as bargaining chips in negotiations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
WHY IS THIS DEAL MADE NOW?
For Iran, years of US sanctions following former US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers have crushed its already anemic economy.
Earlier affirmations of progress in the asset freeze talks have only provided short-term boosts to Iran’s limping rial currency.
The release of that money, even if it is only disbursed under strict circumstances, could provide an economic boost.
For the US, President Joe Biden’s administration has tried to get Iran back into the deal, which fell through after Trump’s withdrawal in 2018. Last year, the countries involved in the initial deal offered Tehran what was described as as his latest and greatest roadmap to restore the deal. Iran did not accept it.
Still, Iran hawks in Congress and outside critics of the 2015 nuclear deal have criticized the new deal. Former Vice President Mike Pence and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jim Risch, as well as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, compared the money transfer to paying a ransom and said the Biden administration is encouraging Iran to continue taking prisoners.
WILL THE UNITED STATES RELEASE THE IRANIAN PRISONERS HELD IN THE AMERICAS?
On Friday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry made sure to mention those prisoners. US officials have declined to comment on who or how many Iranian prisoners might be released in a final deal. But Iranian media has in the past identified several prisoners with cases related to violations of US export laws and restrictions on doing business with Iran.
Those alleged violations include the transfer of money through Venezuela and the sale of dual-use equipment that the United States says could be used in Iran’s military and nuclear programs.
DOES THIS MEAN THAT US-IRAN TENSIONS ARE DECREASING?
No. Aside from tensions over the nuclear deal and Iran’s atomic ambitions, since 2019 Tehran has been blamed for a series of attacks and seizures of ships in the Middle East.
The Pentagon is considering a plan to put US troops on board to protect commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuzthrough which 20% of all oil shipments leaving the Persian Gulf pass.
A major deployment of US sailors and Marines, along with F-35s, F-16s and other aircraft, is also taking place in the region. Meanwhile, Iran supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones that Moscow uses to strike sites in Ukraine amid its war on kyiv.
Lee reported from Washington.