US citizens detained in Iran moved from prison to house arrest

A handful United States citizens imprisoned in Iran have been moved to house arrest, in what US news outlets are reporting is the first step in a potential prisoner swap deal between Washington and Tehran.

Citing people familiar with the agreement, the New York Times reported on Thursday that five dual US-Iranian citizens had been released to house arrest.

The newspaper named three of the prisoners as Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz, and said the families of the other two are withholding their identities.

Four of them were released on Thursday from Iran’s infamous Evin prison to a hotel in the capital, a lawyer for Namazi, Jared Genser, told the Times. The fifth prisoner was released earlier, the newspaper said.

The news came amid increased US-Iran tensions, particularly over a heightened American military deployment in the Gulf, as well as stalled diplomatic efforts to revive an Iranian nuclear agreement.

The detention of dual US-Iranian citizens in Iran has been a major point of contention between the two countries, with the families of the detainees calling on US President Joe Biden’s administration to secure their release.

Namazi’s brother, Babak, said on Thursday that he was “grateful that Siamak and the other Americans in Iran are out of Evin prison and will be under house arrest”.

“While this is a positive change, we will not rest until Siamak and others are back home; we continue to count the days until this can happen,” he said in a statement.

It has remained unclear whether the Iranian Americans’ transfers to house arrest reflected significant progress in a possible prisoner swap between the two countries.

In March, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian signalled that a prisoner exchange deal with Washington could be close – but the US dismissed his comments as false.

Iranian officials at the United Nations confirmed the terms to The Associated Press, saying that the prisoner transfer “marks a significant initial step in the implementation of this agreement”, while confirming previously reported terms of the deal.

The White House said it welcomed the transfer but repeated demands that the prisoners be freed completely. “While this is an encouraging step, these US citizens … should have never been detained in the first place,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson.

“Of course, we will not rest until they are all back home in the United States,” she added.

The New York Times had earlier reported that under the potential deal, the Biden administration will release “a handful of Iranian nationals serving prison sentences for violating sanctions on Iran”.

“The United States will also unfreeze nearly $6 billion of Iran’s assets in South Korea, putting the funds into an account in the central bank of Qatar,” the newspaper said, citing people familiar with the agreement.

Reporting from Tehran, Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari said transferring the funds, with Qatar serving as an intermediary, would be a complex effort that could take several weeks. During that time, the prisoners are expected to remain under 24-hour watch.

Still, she said the transfer would be significant for a country whose “economic future looks very, very bleak” as it struggles under US sanctions. Washington has heaped economic pressure on Tehran as efforts to return to the multilateral 2015 Iranian nuclear accord have so far failed.

Former US President Donald Trump in 2018 nixed the agreement, which had seen Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions against its economy.

On Thursday, Jabbari said more than $50bn in Iranian funds are currently being held in various countries due to the US sanctions, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s government is under “intense pressure … to try and get itself out of this dire [economic] situation it finds itself in”.

The funds held in South Korea, if released, would help in that effort, she added. “Now, these funds will not have an immediate impact on the ordinary lives of Iranians, but it will certainly provide a much-needed relief to the government’s budget.”

‘Important development’

Meanwhile, Genser, the lawyer for Namazi, said the move to house arrest was “an important development”.

“While I hope this will be the first step to their ultimate release, this is at best the beginning of the end and nothing more. But there are simply no guarantees about what happens from here,” he said in a statement.

Namazi, a businessman who in 2016 was convicted of espionage-related charges that the US dismissed as baseless, has been held by Iran for more than seven years.

His father, Baquer, was allowed to leave Iran in October for medical treatment after being detained on similar charges also rejected by Washington.

Sharghi, a venture capitalist, was convicted of espionage in 2020 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, while Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent, was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years for “assembly and collusion against Iran’s national security”.

Sharghi’s sister, Neda, said on Thursday that her family “has faith in the work that President Biden and government officials have undertaken to bring our families home and hope to receive that news soon”.

“Until that point, I hope you can understand that we do not think it will be helpful to comment further,” she said in a statement.

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