$6 bn sent to Qatar for US-Iran prisoner swap
Frozen funds totalling $6 billion have been transferred to Qatari banks under a U.S.-Iran prisoner swap deal, with a plane on standby in Tehran to fly out five American detainees, a source told AFP on Monday.
The release of the funds by U.S. ally South Korea, long blocked under sanctions, is the key condition for the exchange of five Americans detained in Iran and, according to Tehran, five Iranians held in the United States.
Qatar, which acted as the mediator because Washington and Tehran do not have diplomatic relations, has informed both sides of the transfer, said the source briefed on details of the matter.
"Iranian and U.S. officials have been notified by Qatar that all $6 billion has been transferred from Switzerland to bank accounts in Qatar," said the source, requesting anonymity.
"A Qatari jet is on standby in Iran to bring the five U.S. citizens and two relatives to Doha."
Iran earlier voiced hope that the prisoner swap with the United States would take place later on Monday.
"We hope to have total access to the Iranian assets today," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani told a Tehran press conference.
"The prisoner exchange will take place on the same day and five Iranian citizens imprisoned in America will be released."
Iran had generated the $6 billion through oil sales to South Korea, which froze the funds after the United States under former president Donald Trump reimposed sanctions as he withdrew from a landmark nuclear accord.
Iran's central bank governor said Iran would seek damages from South Korea for withholding the funds. The equivalent of 5.57 billion euros ($5.95 billion) was deposited in six Iranian accounts with two Qatari banks on Monday, he said.
"We're making a complaint on behalf of Iran against South Korea for not giving access to these funds and the reduction in value of these funds in order to receive damages," Mohammadreza Farzin said on state TV.
- Spying charges -
The five Americans -- all considered Iranian nationals by Tehran, which rejects dual nationality -- were released to house arrest when the deal was agreed last month.
Among the Americans is Siamak Namazi, a businessman arrested in 2015 on spying charges which his family has rejected.
The others are wildlife conservationist Morad Tahbaz, venture capitalist Emad Sharqi, and two others who wished to remain anonymous.
Last week, the official IRNA news agency identified the five Iranian prisoners.
They include Reza Sarhangpour and Kambiz Attar Kashani, both accused of having violated U.S. sanctions against Tehran.
A third prisoner, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, was detained at his home near Boston in 2021 and charged with being an Iranian government agent, according to U.S. officials.
The two others, Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Amin Hasanzadeh, were said to have links to Iranian security forces.
Out of the five Iranians to be released, two will return to Iran while two others will remain in the United States, upon their request, said Kanani.
The fifth Iranian prisoner will travel to a third country, he added.
- Nuclear dispute -
The White House has denied that the unfreezing of the Iranian funds was effectively a ransom payment.
President Joe Biden's administration has insisted that Iran will only be allowed to use the money to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
Iran, which has been deeply hostile to the U.S. since the 1979 Islamic revolution overthrew the pro-Western monarch, has denied restrictions have been placed on the spending of funds.
Iran's Kanani has insisted that the money will allow Tehran to "purchase all non-sanctioned goods", not just food and medicine.
Biden took office with hopes of restoring the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement, under which Iran promised to constrain its contested nuclear work in return for sanctions relief.
But months of talks failed to produce a breakthrough.
Prospects for resolving the dispute sank further after protests broke out in Iran last year following the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who had been arrested for allegedly violating the country's Islamic dress code.
The release of the funds and the prisoners would come just days after the first anniversary of her death, and as Biden and Iran's president, Ebrahim Raisi, are in New York for the annual U.N. General Assembly, although they are not expected to meet.