U.S. and Iran reportedly engaged in indirect talks on possible prisoner exchange

 February 17, 2023

President Joe Biden's administration is reportedly engaged in indirect talks with the Iranian regime about a possible prisoner swap and release of frozen funds, according to the Washington Examiner.

Those talks are being conducted through intermediaries, with the U.K. on behalf of the U.S. and Qatar on behalf of Iran. The frozen funds in question amount to billions of dollars held in South Korean banks due to U.S. economic sanctions against Iran.

Possible deal in the works

NBC News, citing several unnamed sources, reported that the negotiations have been ongoing for some time and while there has been some progress it is unclear if a final agreement will be reached in the near future.

If the frozen funds in South Korean banks are released, there would be conditions attached to how that money could be used, such as only for food and medicine and humanitarian purposes, and would likely be transferred indirectly to Iran through an intermediary such as Qatar that would oversee the release and how the funds are spent.

The sources revealed to NBC News that the foreign ministers of Iran and Qatar recently met and the Qatari representative "conveyed messages from the U.S. to the Iranians which included points on the prisoner release." Meanwhile, the Iranian representative recently confirmed in an interview with NPR that the talks were ongoing with a U.K. "representative" involved on behalf of the U.S.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, "The representative in question was in Iran in the past weeks, and we updated the agreement that we had back in March" of 2022, and added, "We’re ready to exchange our prisoners, but there are technical steps that need to be taken by the Americans. We are awaiting the technical steps to be taken."

U.S. prisoner in Iran sends a message to Biden

An unnamed State Department official told NBC News, "As we have said, we have ways of communicating with Iran on issues of concern, including on the issue of releasing U.S. citizens wrongfully detained in Iran. Those channels remain open, but we’re not going to detail them."

"We remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. citizens who continue to be wrongfully detained overseas, including Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz, and we continue to work to bring them home, but we have nothing to announce at this time," the official added.

According to a CBS News report in January, Siamak Namazi recently engaged in a seven-day hunger strike, in which he reportedly lost 10 pounds, in order to draw attention to the plight of himself and others being detained in Iran.

He has been held in custody since 2015 -- sentenced to 10 years in prison for alleged "collaboration with a foreign government" -- but has been left behind in multiple prior prisoner swaps between the U.S. and Iran in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

"I went on hunger strike because I've learned the hard way that U.S. presidents tend to rely more on their political thermometer than their moral compass when deciding whether or not to enter a prisoner deal with Iran," Namazi said in a statement released through his attorney. "I denied myself food for an entire week so that maybe President Biden will recognize just how desperate the situation of the U.S. hostages here has become."

Potentially linked to efforts to revive Iran nuclear deal?

To be sure, if these reported negotiations are ultimately successful and the prisoner swap is completed, in addition to the release of the frozen funds, President Biden will undoubtedly face sharp criticism for dealing with the Iranian regime -- though he will also face criticism if he does nothing to help release them.

Indeed, this prospective agreement bears similarities to former President Barack Obama's 2015 engagement with Iran in which four American prisoners were released in exchange for a pallet of $400 million in cash on the same day that Iran signed on to the flawed Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Action or JCPOA, that was eventually nixed by former President Donald Trump in 2018.

The Biden administration has openly stated its intention to revive that nuclear deal, and while it is unclear if this proposed prisoner swap is directly connected to those efforts, this possible deal could potentially be used as "leverage" to make progress in that regard.

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