The Biden administration has reached a secretive agreement with Iran that involves the release of five “unjustly detained” Americans, reportedly in exchange for Tehran getting several jailed Iranians and ultimately, access to approximately $6 billion in sanctioned oil revenue that’s being held in South Korea.
The agreement comes after at least two years of negotiations, according to CNN and the New York Times, which first reported various elements of the negotiations. The five Iranian American dual citizens have been transferred from Iran’s notoriously harsh Evin Prison to a hotel in Tehran, where they will be held for a few weeks under house arrest before being allowed to leave the country.
The detained individuals include Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz, and two Americans whose families don’t want their identities made public, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
The ongoing negotiations are considered very dynamic, and hinge on the eventual complete release of those being held by Iran, according to Watson and a lawyer for one of the detainees.
“We have received confirmation that Iran has released from prison five Americans who were unjustly detained and has placed them on house arrest,” Watson said. “While this is an encouraging step, these U.S. citizens … should have never been detained in the first place. We will continue to monitor their condition as closely as possible.”
Until the five are back on U.S. soil, “negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate,” Watson said. “We will, therefore, have little in the way of details to provide about the state of their house arrest or about our efforts to secure their freedom.”
Jared Genser, a lawyer for Siamak Namazi, told USA TODAY the deal between the U.S. and Iran was an “important step forward” toward securing his client’s release.
“I was very heartened to see the Iranian mission at the United Nations come out publicly and say that there’s a deal and that the five Americans will be pardoned in exchange for prisoners coming from the United States to Iran,” he said. “The fact that they’ve said that publicly and on the record is a really important commitment and makes it more likely that we’ll see this done, but we have to remain vigilant until this is over.”
“Siamak Namazi has tragically been left behind by both the Obama administration and the Trump administration who got out other hostages but left him behind, inexplicably,” Genser added. “So until it’s over, we’re not exactly going to celebrate.”
Genser also emphasized that the United States is not sending any money to Iran as part of the agreement, just unfreezing a $6 billion oil payment from South Korean companies to Iran.
“That’s actually $6 billion of Iranian money that’s been frozen in a South Korean account for for many, many years,” Genser said. “I think it is important to emphasize that the U.S. is not going to pay a single penny to Iran in the context of fulfilling this deal.”
The politics of hostage negotiations and swaps
This deal is likely to trigger a backlash from Republicans in Congress, including some who are concerned that Iran could use the funds for military purposes or to support militant and even terrorist groups in the Middle East and around the world.
“While we always welcome the release of American hostages − if they are in fact released after President Biden pays Iran $6 billion in ransom − this craven act of appeasement will only embolden the ayatollahs to take more hostages and use these ill-gotten gains to attack our troops, fund terrorism and arm Russia,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. “This cycle will continue until President Biden stops dancing to Iran’s tune and starts responding firmly and decisively to their aggression.”
Some conservatives are questioning whether it is part of a broader effort to revive the Iran nuclear deal that was negotiated during the Obama administration.
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told USA TODAY that the Biden administration’s agreement to secure the release of five Americans jailed in Iran was “bad policy.”
“This is not a prisoner exchange, it’s the largest hostage ransom payment in American history and it’s tied to a broader unacknowledged nuclear deal underway,” said Goldberg, who served as NSC director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Trump administration from 2019 to 2020.
Goldberg also expressed concern that the agreement with Iran could result in China and Russia taking more Americans hostage because it sent a message that the U.S. is willing to pay a hefty price for hostages.
“In general, paying for hostages means there’s going to be more hostage taking,” said Goldberg, who was also a senior foreign policy adviser on Iran issues in the House and Senate.
Goldberg said that he is “very afraid” that Thursday’s deal with Iran could result in Russian President Vladimir Putin raising the price tag for jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Gershkovich has been detained by Russian authorities on espionage charges in late March.
And he said he believed the new prisoner exchange agreement is “part of a much broader, quiet negotiation that has bypassed Congress” that is related to the Iran nuclear deal.
Part of a bigger negotiation over an Iran nuclear deal?
The Biden administration has long sought to restore the 2015 nuclear deal that was secured under the Obama administration with Tehran, or an improved deal that forbids Iran from building a nuclear weapons program.
The White House, however, may not be able write any agreement without triggering a messy congressional review; and Israel has already vowed to undermine it.
“In some ways the administration would like this to be an argument over whether or not we should be giving Iran $6 billion of budget support to get five people out of Iran,” Goldberg said, rather than that the U.S. is paying the money as part of a new effort to get a nuclear deal with Tehran.
Genser, Namazi’s lawyer, said that no reports of an agreement or unfrozen assets will let him claim victory until his client lands back on American soil.
“I will just say as someone who’s been Namazi’s lawyer for most of this time that he’s been detained, that we’ve had lots of attempts to try to get the hostages out of Iran that have failed,” Genser said. “There are a series of steps that both sides need to go through to get from where we are today to the ultimate departure from Iran and return to the United States.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US aims to swap five Americans jailed in Iran for Iranians, oil money