US approves $6bn transfer for Iran as part of prisoner deal

Secretary of State signed off on the deal late last week but Congress was not notified of the decision until Monday

An Iranian woman walks past an anti-US mural near the former American embassy in Tehran. EPA
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President Joe Biden's administration has cleared the way for the release of five American citizens detained in Iran by issuing a waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money from South Korea to Qatar, the State Department said on Monday.

As part of the deal, the administration has also agreed to release five Iranian citizens held in the US.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed off on the deal late last week but Congress was not notified of the decision until Monday.

A State Department representative said the freed Iranian money could only be used for humanitarian needs and stressed that none of Washington's tough sanctions against Iran had been lifted.

“It is long-standing US policy to ensure our sanctions do not prevent food, medicine and other humanitarian goods and services from flowing to ordinary people, no matter how objectionable their governments,” the representative told The National.

“We have not lifted any of our sanctions on Iran, and Iran is not receiving any sanctions relief.”

The Americans to be freed are US-Iranian dual citizens and include businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Shargi, 59, and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also holds British citizenship, a Biden administration representative told Reuters.

The identities of the fourth and fifth Americans, one of whom, according to two sources, is a woman, have not been disclosed, the news agency reported.

It was not immediately known which Iranian prisoners the US would release.

The waiver is expected to draw renewed criticism of Mr Biden from Republicans and others that the deal will boost the Iranian economy at a time when Tehran poses a growing threat to US troops and Middle East allies.

On X, formerly Twitter, Senator Chuck Grassley said “it’s ridiculous for US to be blackmailed into paying $6 billion for hostages, which will help indirectly finance the number 1 foreign policy of Iran: terrorism”.

Senator Tom Cotton accused Mr Biden of “paying ransom to the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism”.

The waiver means that European, Middle Eastern and Asian banks will not run afoul of US sanctions in converting the money frozen in South Korea and transferring it to Qatar’s central bank, where it will be held for Iran to use for the purchase of humanitarian goods.

The transfer of the $6 billion was the critical element in the prisoner release deal, under which four of the five American detainees were transferred from Iranian jails to house arrest last month.

The fifth detainee had already been under house arrest.

Updated: September 12, 2023, 4:06 AM