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Five U.S. citizens imprisoned in Iran on charges of collaborating with a hostile government have been transferred from Evin prison in Tehran to an unspecified hotel amid reports that the United States and Iran have reached a deal on a prisoner swap.
The U.S. citizens were transferred on August 10 after months of closed-door negotiations between Tehran and Washington.
Iranian state media reported that the Americans had been transferred as part of a prisoner-swap deal with the United States.
“Based on the agreement, five Iranian prisoners in the U.S. and five American prisoners in Iran will be exchanged,” the official IRNA news agency reported, quoting an informed source.
A statementfrom the White House National Security Council (NSC) confirmed the release of U.S. citizens Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharqi, and two other Americans who wish to remain private.
NSC spokesman John Kirby said under the deal Iran would be given access to money in an existing account and there would be “oversight” to ensure that the money would be used for humanitarian purposes.
Kirby declined to confirm that the amount in the account was $6 billion as reported by U.S. media but in an interview with CNN said the money was not U.S. taxpayer dollars. He also denied that it amounted to a ransom payment but added that there was “no way to get these Americans home without some bargaining with the Iranians.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference that the release of the Americans from prison was a “positive step” and the beginning of a process that he expects will lead to their return to the United States.
Blinken told reporters that the State Department had spoken with the five Americans on August 10 and that he was not aware of any other Americans still detained in Iran.
An earlier NSC statement quoted spokeswoman Adrienne Watson as saying that while the release of the Americans was encouraging, “they should have never been detained in the first place.”
Negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate, Watson added. The statement made no mention of a prisoner exchange.
The initial report of the Americans’ transfer came from Jared Genser, a lawyer for one of the prisoners, who said four of the prisoners were transferred from Evin prison to the hotel. Genser said it appeared that a fifth U.S. citizen had been placed under house arrest.
Genser called the move of the Americans from Evin prison to house arrest an “important development.”
“Although I hope this is the first step towards their ultimate release, at best it is only a preliminary action and nothing more,” he added.
The prisoners were released as The New York Times and other U.S. media reported that Iran and the United States had reached a deal to free the Americans in exchange for an unspecified number of jailed Iranians and Tehran gaining access to $6 billion in oil revenue for humanitarian purposes.
Gregory Brew, an analyst at Eurasia Group, told Radio Farda that the development was the first constructive sign of progress in the relationship between the United States and Iran since reports of an informal understanding in June.
“Despite escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, it still looks like both sides are interested in taking small steps toward de-escalation,” Brew said. “The important area to watch is the nuclear issue. The U.S. wants Iran to release its prisoners, but what it really wants to see is Iran increase its cooperation with the UN nuclear agency and ramp down its enrichment of uranium.”
It is possible that progress on the nuclear issue will build off the prisoner deal, Brew said, but added, “We’ll have to wait for an update from the UN nuclear agency to know whether Iran has taken the steps the U.S. wants it to take.”
Iran’s economy has been hobbled by Western sanctions over its human rights record and unrest has rattled the country since late last year amid declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support.
Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into the demonstrations, which officials across the country have tried to quell with harsh measures.
U.S.-Iranian relations have also withered under a failure to revive a nuclear deal that President Joe Biden vowed to renew when he ran for president.
Negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers remain deadlocked. In the absence of a deal Tehran has reduced its commitments to allow monitoring and provide further information on its nuclear program.
With reporting by The New York Times, AP, AFP, and Reuters