5 Prisoners Sought by US in Swap with Iran Are Freed, Arrive in Qatar

The entrance to the former US Embassy, which has been turned into an anti-American museum, is seen n Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (AP)
The entrance to the former US Embassy, which has been turned into an anti-American museum, is seen n Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (AP)
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5 Prisoners Sought by US in Swap with Iran Are Freed, Arrive in Qatar

The entrance to the former US Embassy, which has been turned into an anti-American museum, is seen n Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (AP)
The entrance to the former US Embassy, which has been turned into an anti-American museum, is seen n Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (AP)

Five prisoners sought by the US in a swap with Iran flew out of Tehran on Monday, officials said, part of a deal that saw nearly $6 billion in Iranian assets unfrozen.

Despite the deal, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the US and Iran, which are locked in various disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it now enriches uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

The planned exchange has unfolded amid a major American military buildup in the Arabian Gulf, with the possibility of US troops boarding and guarding commercial ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.

President Joe Biden welcomed the news of the release in a statement, saying “five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home.”

He urged Americans not to travel to Iran, and he demanded more information on what happened to Bob Levinson, an American who went missing years ago. Biden also announced sanctions on former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.

Two people, including a senior Biden administration official, said that the prisoners left Tehran on Monday. They spoke on condition of anonymity while the exchange was ongoing.

In addition to the five freed Americans, two US family members flew out, according to the Biden administration official.

Flight-tracking data showed a Qatar Airways flight take off from Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been used for exchanges in the past. Several of the former prisoners could be seen climbing the stairs to the flight in video released by Iranian media. The plane later landed in Doha, Qatar.

Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners had arrived in Doha for the swap.

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that the exchange would take place Monday after nearly $6 billion in once-frozen Iranian assets reached Qatar.

“Fortunately Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released and God willing today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation,” Kanaani said.

“On the subject of the prisoner swap, it will happen today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the US,” he added. “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side.”

He said two of the Iranian prisoners will stay in the US.

Mohammad Reza Farzin, Iran’s Central Bank chief, later came on state television to acknowledge the receipt of over 5.5 billion euros — $5.9 billion — in accounts in Qatar. Months ago, Iran had anticipated getting as much as $7 billion.

The planned exchange comes ahead of the convening of world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week in New York, where Iran’s hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.

The deal has already opened US President Joe Biden to fresh criticism from Republicans and others who say that the administration is helping boost the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to American troops and Mideast allies. That could have implications in his reelection campaign as well.

On the US side, Washington has said the planned swap includes Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence. All of their charges have been widely criticized by their families, activists and the US government.

US officials have so far declined to identify the fourth and fifth prisoner.

The five prisoners Iran has said it seeks are mostly held over allegedly trying to export banned material to Iran, such as dual use electronics that can be used by a military.

The two that Nour News said were in Doha were: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced to 63 months in prison in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons and other military gear, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian charged in 2021 over allegedly unlawfully exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.

The cash represents money South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the US imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.

The US maintains that, once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts and will only be able to be used for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. Those transactions are currently allowed under American sanctions targeting Tehran over its advancing nuclear program.

Iranian government officials have largely concurred with that explanation, though some hard-liners have insisted, without providing evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.

Iran and the US have a history of prisoner swaps dating back to the 1979 US Embassy takeover and hostage crisis following the revolution. Their most recent major exchange happened in 2016, when Iran came to a deal with world powers to restrict its nuclear program in return for an easing of sanctions.

The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners — including those with dual nationality — as bargaining chips, an allegation Tehran rejects.

Negotiations over a major prisoner swap faltered after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal in 2018. From the following year on, a series of attacks and ship seizures attributed to Iran have raised tensions.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program now enriches closer than ever to weapons-grade levels. While the head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, months more would likely be needed to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put it on a missile — if Iran decided to pursue one.

Iran maintains its nuclear program is peaceful, and the US intelligence community has kept its assessment that Iran is not pursuing an atomic bomb.

Iran has taken steps in recent months to settle some issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But the advances in its program have led to fears of a wider regional conflagration as Israel, itself a nuclear power, has said it would not allow Tehran to develop the bomb. Israel bombed both Iraq and Syria to stop their nuclear programs, giving the threat more weight. It also is suspected in carrying out a series of killings targeting Iran’s nuclear scientists.

Iran also supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones Moscow uses to target sites in Ukraine in its war on Kyiv, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.



Ukraine Summit Attracts World Leaders, Fails to Isolate Russia

This photograph shows a sign representing Ukraine on the bank of Lake Lucerne in Lucerne, on June 14, 2024, ahead of a Ukraine peace summit on June 15-16, 2024.
This photograph shows a sign representing Ukraine on the bank of Lake Lucerne in Lucerne, on June 14, 2024, ahead of a Ukraine peace summit on June 15-16, 2024.
TT

Ukraine Summit Attracts World Leaders, Fails to Isolate Russia

This photograph shows a sign representing Ukraine on the bank of Lake Lucerne in Lucerne, on June 14, 2024, ahead of a Ukraine peace summit on June 15-16, 2024.
This photograph shows a sign representing Ukraine on the bank of Lake Lucerne in Lucerne, on June 14, 2024, ahead of a Ukraine peace summit on June 15-16, 2024.

World leaders will join Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at a summit this weekend to explore ways of ending the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War Two, but Russia isn't invited and the event will fall short of Kyiv's aim of isolating Moscow.

US Vice President Kamala Harris, French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada and Japan are among those set to attend the June 15-16 meeting at the Swiss mountaintop resort of Buergenstock.

India, which has helped Moscow survive the shock of economic sanctions, is expected to send a delegation. Turkey and Hungary, which similarly maintain cordial ties with Russia, will be represented by their foreign ministers.

But despite months of intense Ukrainian and Swiss lobbying, some others will not be there, most notably China, a key consumer of Russian oil and supplier of goods that help Moscow maintain its manufacturing base.

"This meeting is already a result," Zelenskiy said in Berlin on Tuesday, while acknowledging the challenge of maintaining international support as the war, now well into its third year, grinds on.

Ninety-two countries and eight organizations will attend, Switzerland said. Organizers preparing a joint statement have battled to strike a balance between condemning Russia's actions and securing as many participants as possible, diplomats say.

A final draft of the summit declaration refers to Russia's "war" against Ukraine, and also underlines commitment to the UN charter and respect for international law, according to two people familiar with the document.

Participants not in agreement with the declaration have until the end of Friday to opt out, the sources said.

The Swiss foreign ministry declined to comment.

Switzerland wants the summit to pave the way for a "future peace process" in which Russia takes part - and to determine which country could take on the next phase.

'FUTILE'

The idea of a summit was originally floated after Zelenskiy presented a 10-point peace plan in late 2022.

Ulrich Schmid, a political scientist and Eastern Europe expert at the University of St. Gallen, said the summit appeared to be "a mixed bag" so far, given the show of support from some quarters and China's absence.

"Then the question arises: is peace actually doable?" Schmid added. "As long as (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is in power... it will be difficult."

Putin said on Friday that Russia would cease fire and enter peace talks if Ukraine dropped its NATO ambitions and withdrew its forces from four Ukrainian regions claimed by Moscow. Kyiv has repeatedly said its territorial integrity is non-negotiable.

Russia, which sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, has described the idea of a summit to which it is not invited as "futile".

Moscow casts its "special military operation" in Ukraine as part of a broader struggle with the West, which it says wants to bring Russia to its knees. Kyiv and the West say this is nonsense and accuse Russia of waging an illegal war of conquest.

Given such entrenched differences, the summit will focus on parts of Zelenskiy's plan broad enough to be palatable to most, if not all, participants. These include the need to guarantee food security, nuclear safety, freedom of navigation, prisoner exchanges, and the return of children, officials said.

Meanwhile, China, along with Brazil, is pushing a separate peace plan for Ukraine that calls for the participation of both warring parties. Moscow has voiced its support for Beijing's efforts to end the conflict.

Kyiv has not hidden its frustration at China's decision to skip the Swiss summit. Zelenskiy even accused Beijing of helping Russia to disrupt it, an extraordinary outburst against a global superpower with unrivalled influence over Moscow.

On the battlefield, the gathering comes at a difficult time for Ukraine. Russian troops, who control around 18% of Ukrainian territory, are advancing in the east in a war that has killed tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians, left villages, towns and cities in ruins and uprooted millions.