The US and Iran are expected to conclude a controversial prisoner swap on Monday involving the Biden administration’s thawing of $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian oil money held in South Korea since 2018 .
Tehran and Washington should each exchange five prisoners, including environmental defender Morad Tahbaz, an Anglo-American citizen.
In a complex and delicate diplomatic deal months in the making, the five Americans are expected to be flown from Tehran to Qatar before being transferred to flights to Washington.
Republicans and some former Iranian political detainees have accused Joe Biden of striking a deal with the world’s leading terrorist state that will only embolden Iran to keep hostage-taking at the heart of its diplomatic arsenal. The State Department says the money released is oil money belonging to Iran, frozen by the Trump administration in 2018 when the United States left the Iran nuclear deal.
Last week, three European countries, including the United Kingdom, accused Iran of stockpiling highly enriched uranium that could have no civilian use.
The United States says prisoner swap mediator Qatar will ensure that unfrozen money is spent only on goods – mainly food, agricultural products and medicine – that are not subject to sanctions. Critics say it will be impossible to police the deal and that the U.S. threat to withdraw if Iran breaks the deal is false.
The path to the exchange reached a turning point when the State Department agreed to a waiver making it easier to release cash from South Korean banks to accounts in Switzerland and Doha.
The five Americans have already been transferred from Evin prison in Tehran to different hotels in the capital. They are expected to first be flown to Doha before flying to the United States for their return.
Tahbaz was left in Iran when British Iranian dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were released in a deal brokered by then-British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
The identities of the five Iranians benefiting from pardon in the United States have been made public by Tehran. It is not clear that they all want to return to Iran. Most of them were imprisoned for violating US sanctions.
This agreement constitutes a coup for Qatar, which plays the role of mediator between two countries which deeply mistrust each other. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is scheduled to speak at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, will likely hail the deal as another sign of American weakness.
Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Biden of being naive and returning to past mistakes.
Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis called Biden’s decision outrageous, adding that it “sent a signal to hostile regimes: If you take Americans, you could potentially profit from them…A rogue regime should know that if you touch the hair of any American, you will have hell to pay.
Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, criticized the timing of the release, so close to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death while in Iranian police custody.
It is unclear whether the agreement will lead to a broader diplomatic breakthrough, or to a new, less ambitious path to limiting Iran’s civilian nuclear program, in which Tehran would agree to reduce its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium.
Americans of Iranian origin, whose American citizenship is not recognized by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations. Last week there were reports of the arrest of three dual nationals in Iran and it was first confirmed two weeks ago that Johan Floderus, an EU diplomat based in Iran, had been imprisoned since April 2022.