Blinken rules out US sanctions relief for Iran after prisoner release

Tehran transferred four Americans from prison to house arrest under deal expected to free frozen Iranian funds

From left, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz were three of the four released. Reuters, Shargi Family and @USEnvoyIran/Twitter
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The US will not provide sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for the release of four Americans who were transferred from Tehran's Evin prison to house arrest, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said.

“In any event, in any respect, Iran will not be receiving any sanctions relief,” Mr Blinken said after the Americans were released from prison on Thursday.

He said their transfer to house arrest was “just the beginning of a process that I hope and expect will lead to their return home to the United States”.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters the same on Friday.

“This is an ongoing negotiation,” he said.

“The deal's not done … those Americans aren't home yet.”

Iranian state media reported that the prisoners would be released in exchange for $6 billion belonging to Iran which was currently frozen in South Korea, as well as additional funds held in Iraq's Trade Bank.

The White House said that it would not release any details until the deal is done.

“In any instance where we would engage in such efforts to bring Americans home from Iran, Iran’s own funds would be used and transferred to restricted accounts such that the monies can only be used for humanitarian purposes, which, as you know, is permitted under our sanctions,” Mr Blinken said on Thursday.

“There’s an exemption for humanitarian that’s there from the start.”

Businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Shargi, 58, were released, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also has British citizenship. The fourth American citizen's identity has not been made public.

Mr Blinken said he had spoken to them after their release.

“I think they're, needless to say, very happy to be out of prison.”

Release of funds

Iranian state news agency Irna said the $6 billion in South Korea “has been changed into euro [from South Korean won) in a bank in Switzerland and is ready to be transferred to an account in Qatar's central bank”.

The funds were frozen in September 2019 after the Trump administration pulled sanctions waivers on countries importing Iranian oil.

“Our government has been closely consulting with involved countries such as the United States and Iran to resolve the frozen fund issue and hopes that the issue will be resolved amicably,” South Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Iran's Deputy Chief of Staff for Political Affairs, Mohammad Jamshidi, suggested Iranians detained in the US would be freed as part of the exchange for the detained Americans.

“Hopefully, Iranians held hostage by the US will be freed,” Mr Jamshidi wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.

“US prisoners in Iran will leave simultaneously with the irreversible release of our illegally held citizens and the full transfer of illegally held assets in South Korea, similar to the recently freed assets in Iraq,” he wrote.

Prisoners in Iran

Siamak Namazi, a businessman in his early 50s with dual US-Iranian citizenship, was detained in 2015 by the Revolutionary Guards while visiting his family in Tehran. Months later his ailing father, Baquer, was detained after returning to Iran to visit his jailed son. They were both sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison for spying and co-operating with the US government.

A former Iranian provincial governor and former Unicef official who also has dual citizenship, Baquer Namazi was put under house arrest in 2018 on medical grounds and left Iran in 2022 for medical treatment.

Emad Sharghi: In 2017 Mr Sharghi and his wife moved to Iran from the US. The Iranian-American businessman was first arrested in 2018 when working for “Saravan Holding” tech investment company. He was released on bail after eight months and a Revolutionary Court cleared him of spying and security-related charges, but his travel ban remained.

On November 2020 he was summoned by another Revolutionary Court which sentenced him to 10 years in jail for espionage. He was not initially imprisoned but Iranian media reported he was arrested as he tried to flee Iran in January 2021.

Morad Tahbaz: An Iranian-American environmentalist, who also holds British citizenship, Mr Tahbaz was arrested in 2018. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2019 for “assembly and collusion against Iran's national security” and “contacts with US enemy government … for the purpose of spying”.

The fourth and fifth prisoners were not identified.

Iranian prisoners in US

Under the deal, five Iranians jailed in the US will be released. For years, Iran has demanded the release of its nationals held in the US, including seven Iranian-American dual nationals, two Iranians with permanent US residency and four Iranian citizens with no legal status in the US.

Most of them have been sentenced to jail for “violating US sanctions against Iran”.

Updated: August 11, 2023, 7:06 PM