Home World Five Americans fly out of Iran in $6bn oil money prisoner swap | Iran

Five Americans fly out of Iran in $6bn oil money prisoner swap | Iran

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Five US prisoners detained in Iran, some for nearly a decade, have left the country by plane to Qatar, as part of a controversial prisoner swap involving the unfreezing by the Biden administration of $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian oil money.

Tehran and Washington had agreed to swap five prisoners each, including the conservationist Morad Tahbaz, a British-American citizen.

In an elaborate and delicate diplomatic deal, months in the making, the five Americans were taken from hotels in Tehran to a plane bound for Qatar, the first stage in a journey that would take them on flights to Washington.

Qatar has been acting as the mediator for the deal, commencing with the electronic transfer of the Iranian cash to bank accounts in Qatar and Switzerland. The prisoners were allowed to board the plane only after the cash transfer was completed. Apart from Tahbaz, the identity of only two other Americans has been made public.

Republican senators in the US and some former Iranian political detainees have accused Joe Biden of striking a deal that will only encourage Iran to keep hostage-taking as a central part of its diplomatic arsenal. The US state department says the money that is being released is oil money owed to Iran and frozen by the Trump administration in 2018 when the US left the Iran nuclear deal.

It is not clear if the deal will lead to a wider diplomatic breakthrough, or a new, less ambitious route to constrain Iran’s civil nuclear programme, in which Tehran agrees to lower its stocks of highly enriched uranium.

Last week, three European countries, including the UK, accused Iran of building stocks of highly enriched uranium that could have no possible civilian purpose.

The US says Qatar will ensure that the unfrozen money is only spent on goods – primarily food, agricultural goods and medicine – that are not subject to sanctions. However, critics say it will be impossible to police.

The path to the swap reached a turning point recently when the state department agreed a waiver facilitating the release of the cash from South Korean banks to accounts in Switzerland and Doha.

The five Americans were previously transferred out of Evin jail in Tehran to various hotels in the capital.

Tahbaz was left in Iran when the British-Iranian dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were released as part of a deal negotiated by the then UK foreign secretary, Liz Truss.

The identities of five Iranians who are being granted clemency in the US have all been made public by Tehran. It is not clear that all of them want to return to Iran. Most of them were jailed for breaches of US sanctions.

The deal is a diplomatic win for Qatar as a mediator between two countries that deeply distrust one another. The Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, due to speak to the UN general assembly on Tuesday in New York, is likely to laud the deal as another sign of US weakness.

Michael McCaul, the Republican chair of the US House foreign affairs committee, has accused Biden of being naive and returning to the mistakes of the past.

The Republican presidential contender Ron DeSantis described Biden’s decision as outrageous, adding that it “has sent a signal to hostile regimes that if you take Americans, you could potentially profit … A rogue regime should know that if you touch the hair on the head of any American, you will have hell to pay.”

Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, has criticised the timing of the release, so close to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death in Iranian police custody.

Iranian Americans, whose US citizenship is not recognised by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations. In the last week, there have been reports that three dual nationals were arrested in Iran. It was confirmed two weeks ago for the first time that Johan Floderus, an EU diplomat who travelled to Iran, has been jailed since April 2022.

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