When $6 billion of unfrozen Iranian funds are wired to banks in Qatar early next week, it will trigger a carefully choreographed sequence that will see as many five detained US dual nationals left Iran and a similar number of Iranian prisoners held in the US flew home, according to eight Iranians and other sources familiar with the negotiations who spoke to Reuters.
As a first step, Iran on August 10 released four US citizen from Tehran’s Evin prison to house arrest, where they joined the fifth, who was already under house arrest. Later that day, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the move is the first step of a process that will lead to their return home.
They include businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also holds British nationality, the US administration said. The Tahbaz and Shargi families did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for the Namazi family declined to comment.
The identities of the fourth and fifth Americans, one of whom two sources say is a woman, have not been released. Reuters could not determine which Iranian prisoners the US would exchange
In the middle of the negotiations that this deal was formed between the superpower brand of Iran “Good Satan” and the Islamic Republic that Washington calls a state sponsor of terrorism is the small but very wealthy state of Qatar.
Doha has hosted at least eight rounds of talks involving Iranian and US negotiators sitting in separate hotels speaking via shuttle diplomacy, a source briefed on the discussions said, which the earlier sessions were devoted mainly to the thorn. nuclear issue and the later prisoners were released.
Doha will implement a financial arrangement where it will pay banking fees and monitor how Iran spends them unfrozen cash to ensure that no money is spent on things under US sanctions, and the prisoners Qatar will move once they are replaced, according to three of the sources.
“Iran initially wanted direct access to the funds but eventually agreed to have access through Qatar,” a senior diplomat said. “Iran will buy food and medicine and Qatar will pay directly.”
Reuters compiled this account with previously unreported details about the extent of Qatari involvement in the secret talks, how the deal unfolded and the expediency that prompted both sides to get the prisoner swap deal. Reuters interviewed four Iranian officials, two US sources, a senior Western diplomat, a Gulf government adviser and a person familiar with the negotiations.
All the sources requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of a deal that has not yet been fully implemented.
A State Department spokesman said the US was not ready to announce the exact time of the prisoner’s release. The Department also declined to discuss the details of what the spokesman called “an ongoing and sensitive negotiation.”
‘You can build trust’
The US administration has not commented on the timing of the fund transfer. However, on September 5, South Korean foreign minister Park Jin said that efforts are underway to transfer Iranian funds.
“The US-Iran relationship is not one of trust. We judge Iran by its actions, nothing else,” the State Department spokesman added.
Washington has agreed to the movement of Iranian funds from South Korea to restricted accounts held by financial institutions in Qatar, but no money will go directly to Iran, the spokesman added.
Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the details of the negotiations, Qatar’s role in the talks or the terms of the final agreement.
Iran’s foreign ministry and its mission to the UN did not respond to detailed questions for this story.
Sources’ account of the negotiations shows how the deal sidesteps a key US-Iran dispute over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, culminating in a rare moment of cooperation between the longtime adversaries, who are at odds on many issues from on Iran’s nuclear program to the US military presence in the Gulf.
Relations between the US and Iran have been at a boiling point since Donald Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal with Iran as US president in 2018. Reaching another nuclear deal has gained little ground since then, as President Joe Biden for the 2024 US election.
The State Department spokesman also said there has been no change in Washington’s overall approach to Iran, “which continues to focus on deterrence, pressure and diplomacy.”
Once the funds are transferred, they will be held in restricted accounts in Qatar, and the US will have oversight of how and when these funds are used, the State Department spokesperson added.
The potential move has gotten the Republican criticism that Biden, a Democrat, is paying the ransom for US citizens. But Blinken told reporters on August 10 that the deal does not mean Iran will receive any sanctions relief, explaining that Washington will continue to push back “resolutely against Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.” “.
The Qatari-led mediation gained momentum in June 2023, the source briefed on the discussions said, adding at least eight rounds of talks have been held since March 2022, with earlier rounds focused on mainly on the nuclear issue and the prisoners.
“They all realized that nuclear (negotiations) was a dead end and shifted the focus to prisoners. Prisoners are simpler. It’s easy to get and you can build trust,” he said. “This is when things got serious again.”
The prisoners are expected to bring Qatar
Iranian, diplomatic and regional sources said that once the money reaches Qatar from South Korea via Switzerland, Qatari officials will instruct Tehran and Washington to continue the outflows under the terms of a document. which was signed by both sides and Qatar in late July or early August. Reuters has not seen the document.
The move to banks in Qatar is expected finish as early as next week if all goes to plan, the source briefed on the talks said. Reuters did not identify the banks involved.
“American prisoners will be flown to Qatar from Tehran and Iranian prisoners will be flown from the US to Qatar, and then transferred to Iran,” the source briefed in talks with Reuters.
According to two Iranian insiders, the source explained the negotiations and the senior Western diplomat, the most complicated part of the talks is the arrangement of a mechanism to ensure transparency in the transfer of money and respect for the sanctions of US. $6 billion in Iranian assets – the proceeds of oil sales – have been frozen under the US oil freeze and financial sanctions against Iran. President Trump then reimposed the sanctions in 2018 when he pulled Washington out of a deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.
Issues discussed included how to ensure Iran spent the money only on humanitarian goods and securing guarantees from Qatar on its monitoring of the process.
“To save the negotiations from collapsing, Qatar promised to cover the banking fees for the transfer of funds from Seoul to Switzerland, and then to Qatari banks, while also taking responsibility for handling the cost ,” an Iranian insider explained about the talks. Reuters.
The central bank governors of Iran and Qatar met in Doha on June 14 to discuss the fund transfer, a second Iranian insider and the source of the talks said.
The Central Bank of Iran and the central bank of Qatar declined to comment.
The talks were led by US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley — now on unpaid leave because of his security clearance is under review — and by US Deputy Special Envoy Abram Paley and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, said an Iranian official, two sources briefed on the negotiations and Western diplomats.
Mehdi Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, joined the Iranian delegation at two meetings in Qatar to discuss the funds transfer, a senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters. Qatar’s Minister of State in the Foreign Ministry Mohammed Al-Khulaifi acted as mediator.
Malley declined to comment. Paley, Kani and Al Khulaifi could not be reached directly for comment.