Biden faces dilemma as US and Iran negotiate possible prisoner swap

President Joe Biden may soon face a politically charged decision on whether to release billions of dollars in funds to Iran to secure the release of Americans imprisoned by the regime.

The United States and Iran have resumed negotiations on a possible prisoner swap and the indirect talks are showing signs of progress, said two Western officials and three sources with knowledge of the talks.

The possible formula for the deal would include the release of prisoners in each country and the release of up to $7 billion from South Korean banks currently blocked by US sanctions, the sources said. NBC News first reported on the prisoner swap negotiations in February.

The two governments are also exploring a possible informal agreement aimed at averting a crisis related to the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program, but it is not clear whether either side is willing to make the necessary concessions, including whether Washington would be willing to relax. economic sanctions against Tehran. Reports of a possible informal understanding on nuclear issues first appeared in the Israeli and Iranian press.

US and Iranian officials have visited Oman several times this year for indirect talks, with Omani officials relaying messages back and forth, according to a US official and two Western officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly. due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Officials confirm that the discussions concerned imprisoned US citizens and Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier talks took place between US and Iranian officials in New York, where Iran has a UN mission.

The indirect talks on a possible informal agreement on Iran’s nuclear activities could potentially include a commitment by Tehran to cooperate fully with the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency and to refrain from enriching uranium beyond 60% purity. Iran has steadily expanded its uranium enrichment work and has enough fissile material for more than one nuclear weapon if it chooses to enrich the material to 90% purity, experts say.

In return, the United States could possibly ease sanctions or the application of some sanctions, although it is unclear how far the Biden administration would go to ease the financial pressure on Iran caused by a series of US economic restrictions.

If negotiations on the possible prisoner exchange or on nuclear issues continue to progress, Biden will have to decide whether he is ready to face domestic political criticism for giving Iran access to blocked funds or easing sanctions. ahead of the presidential election next fall. . Former President Barack Obama came under fire from Republican lawmakers in 2015 when his administration gave Iran access to money that had been blocked by sanctions just as Tehran released a group of Americans imprisoned.

But if there is no agreement on prisoners or nuclear issues, Biden could face an international crisis if Iran chooses to produce 90% enriched weapons-grade uranium, a threshold which could incite Israel to launch a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

The State Department has denied that the United States and Iran have reached an agreement regarding Tehran’s nuclear program.

“Rumours of an interim nuclear deal or otherwise are false and misleading,” State Department spokesman Matt Miller told reporters this week, later adding, “We have always believed that diplomacy is the way to go. best way forward”.

Western officials have said that if the two sides can reach an agreement on the prisoners, it would improve the chances of an informal agreement on a broader set of issues related to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has denied plans to develop nuclear weapons and says the program is for purely civilian purposes.

Biden entered office promising to revive the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers known as the JCPOA which imposed limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of US and international sanctions. . Former President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions and introduced additional sanctions against Iran.

Negotiations to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal broke down last year.

Iran has struck an optimistic tone on the potential prisoner swap, although the United States has previously accused the regime of providing misleading statements that raised false hopes for the families of imprisoned Americans.

Nasser Kanaani, spokesman for Iran’s foreign minister, said this week that “negotiations for the exchange of prisoners between Iran and America are ongoing, and if the other side is as serious as we , this event may occur in the near future”.

The US government says three US citizens are being held in Iran – Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz – along with an unknown number of legal permanent residents in the United States, including Shahab Dalili.

One of the Americans, Namazi, has been behind bars in Tehran for more than seven years, longer than any other American in history.

Iranian authorities sentenced Namazi to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with a hostile foreign government”. The United Nations, human rights organizations and the US government say the charges are baseless and that his detention is an arbitrary violation of international law.

Families of jailed Americans saw their hopes lifted for a possible breakthrough before facing crushing disappointment when no deal was reached.

The families have repeatedly requested a face-to-face meeting with Biden, but so far the White House has not responded to their request.

Namazi has accused successive US administrations of failing to secure the release of detained Americans. In January, he began a week-long hunger strike, directly calling on Biden to meet with the families of imprisoned Americans.

“In the past, I have implored you to reach for your moral compass and find the resolve to bring the American hostages in Iran home. To no avail,” Namazi said in a letter written from his jail cell, addressing Biden. “Not only do we remain prisoners of Iran, but you have not even granted our families a meeting.”

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