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Source: NBC News

Feb 15, 2023

The U.S. and Iran are holding indirect talks on a possible prisoner exchange, with the help of the U.K. and Qatar, sources say

At least three U.S. citizens are being held by Tehran, along with an unknown number of legal U.S. residents.

By Dan De Luce and Abigail Williams

The Biden administration is holding indirect discussions with Iran on a possible prisoner exchange in a bid to secure the release of American citizens imprisoned in Iran, with Qatar and the United Kingdom playing an intermediary role in the talks, according to four sources familiar with the matter.

The negotiations have made progress, but it remains unclear if a final agreement will be reached, the sources said. 

The push by the White House comes after months of negotiations aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear agreement have stalled and as the administration has announced new sanctions against Tehran over its delivery of drones to Russia.

The two sides are exploring a formula that has been discussed previously, dating to 2021, that could include a possible prisoner exchange and the release of billions of dollars in funds in South Korea banks currently blocked by U.S. sanctions, three sources with knowledge of the talks said.


The proposed formula would allow Iran access to the funds but only for the purchase of food, medicine or other humanitarian purposes, in accordance with existing U.S. sanctions against Iran. 

In the discussions, U.S. and Iranian diplomats have explored possible arrangements for how to transfer the frozen funds, with a third country such as Qatar possibly overseeing the transfer, the sources said. 

This month, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani met his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. During the meeting, the Qatari delegation “conveyed messages from the U.S. to the Iranians which included points on the prisoner release,” said a source with knowledge of the talks. 

In an interview this month with NPR, the Iranian foreign minister, Amir-Abdollahian, said discussions were underway on a possible prisoner swap with third parties helping to relay messages. He said a “U.K. official” was acting as a “representative” for the U.S. in the talks.

“The representative in question was in Iran in the past weeks, and we updated the agreement that we had back in March,” he said. “We’re ready to exchange our prisoners, but there are technical steps that need to be taken by the Americans. We are awaiting the technical steps to be taken.”

Asked about possible indirect negotiations, the Biden administration has suggested it has methods for relaying messages to Iran.

“As we have said, we have ways of communicating with Iran on issues of concern, including on the issue of releasing U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in Iran. Those channels remain open, but we’re not going to detail them,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“We remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. citizens who continue to be wrongfully detained overseas, including Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz, and we continue to work to bring them home, but we have nothing to announce at this time,” the spokesperson added.

Iran’s U.N. mission in New York did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.K.’s embassy in Washington declined to comment.

With the U.S. and Iran increasingly at odds over the country’s advancing nuclear program, anti-regime protests and Tehran’s drone deliveries to Russia, the window for negotiations on a prisoner swap could soon close as tensions rise in coming months, said experts and advocates of the imprisoned Americans.

“While it is understandable that the U.S. and the world are responding to the mass repression by Iran of nonviolent protests, President Biden cannot lose focus on the imperative to bring the American hostages home,” said Jared Genser, pro bono counsel for Namazi, one of the three American citizens held in Tehran. “I fear that when Iran’s broadening nuclear activities are added to this mix that we are rapidly running out of time to get a hostage deal done,” he added.

Namazi has been behind bars in Iran for more than seven years, longer than any other American in history. Iranian authorities sentenced him to 10 years on charges of “collaboration with a hostile foreign government.”

The United Nations, human rights organizations and the U.S. government say that the charges are baseless and that his detention is an arbitrary violation of international law. 

Two other American citizens, Tahbaz and Sharghi, are imprisoned in Iran, as well as an unknown number of permanent U.S. legal residents, including Shahab Dalili. Families of the imprisoned Americans believed their loved ones were close to release in recent years, but possible deals collapsed.  

Roxanne Tahbaz holds a picture of her father, Morad Tahbaz, at a protest in London in April calling on the U.K. government to increase its efforts to free him.Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images file

Namazi has accused successive U.S. administrations of failing to secure his release and recently went on a weeklong hunger strike, appealing directly to President Joe Biden to meet with the families of imprisoned Americans.

“In the past I implored you to reach for your moral compass and find the resolve to bring the U.S. hostages in Iran home. To no avail,” Namazi said in a letter written in his prison cell, addressing Biden. “Not only do we remain Iran’s prisoners, but you have not so much as granted our families a meeting.” 

Iran has denied that it has imprisoned Americans and other foreigners on arbitrary charges and says the cases were handled in accordance with its laws.

A prisoner exchange that included the release of some funds blocked by U.S. sanctions would almost certainly trigger sharp criticism from some lawmakers in Washington, particularly Republicans who already have accused Biden of failing to take a sufficiently tough stance toward Iran. 

But Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a think tank, said there were political risks to failing to win the release of the imprisoned Americans.

“There will be criticism for any deal with the Islamic Republic. But leaving American hostages behind will not be cost-free either,” Vaez said. 

A similar prisoner swap agreement in 2015 during President Barack Obama’s administration came under intense criticism.

Under that arrangement, the U.S. approved the transfer of $400 million in cash to Tehran on the same day Iran released four American prisoners and formally implemented the 2015 nuclear accord. The money, part of a settlement of a decadeslong legal dispute with Iran, was delivered on pallets by plane, prompting accusations from Republican lawmakers that the transfer amounted to ransom. The Obama administration rejected the criticism and said it was used as “leverage” to ensure the release of imprisoned Americans.

Having tried to revive the 2015 nuclear deal through diplomacy, the Biden administration has been tightening economic pressure on Iran and has sent a signal that military force remains an option if all other means fail to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

The 2015 accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action or JCPOA, was designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons and imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear activities in return for an easing of U.S. and international economic sanctions. Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 and reimposed an array of sanctions.

The U.S. and Israel last month held what the Pentagon called the largest ever joint military exercise, involving more than 140 aircraft and 12 naval vessels.

Dubbed Juniper Oak, the exercise enhanced “the United States’ ability to respond to contingencies and underscores the U.S. commitment to the Middle East region,” the Pentagon said during the drill.

American and Israeli aircrafts fly over Israel during the Juniper Oak military exercise on Jan. 24.Israel Defense Force/U.S. Military's Central Command via AP file

The exercise with Israel was meant to convey to Iran that the U.S. has not ruled out military action if required, regional analysts and former officials said.

After the exercise, Iranian state television showed what it called an underground base for fighter jets and drones at an undisclosed location.

To ramp up pressure on Iran, the administration is weighing whether to enforce sanctions more strictly against Chinese and other companies that are involved in Iranian oil exports to China, former U.S. officials and congressional staffers said. Israel has long urged the White House to make such a move as have lawmakers in Congress favoring a more hawkish approach.

Iran is banned from exporting its oil but has sought to evade the sanctions. Iranian oil sales have been surging in recent months, according to firms that track the global oil market. Much of its exported oil is ending up in China, sometimes via vessels bearing the flags of other countries, market analysts say.

Iran does not publish statistics about its oil sales.

The Biden administration says that it has warned China and other governments against flouting the sanctions and that it plans to ramp up enforcement. 

“We do not hesitate to take action against sanctions evaders, and we are determined to step up our enforcement in light of Iran’s continued, alarming nuclear advances,” a State Department spokesperson said.

“We regularly engage with the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and other countries and strongly discourage them from taking steps vis-a-vis Iran that contravene U.S. sanctions,” the spokesperson said.

The U.S. special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, “delivered the same message” to China’s director general for arms control and disarmament, Sun Xiaobo, in a phone call this month, the spokesperson added.

Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit. 

Abigail Williams is a producer and reporter for NBC News covering the State Department.

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