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Daughter of environmental activist Morad Tahbaz, who is detained in Iran, holds a photo of him

Photo: Stefan Rousseau / AP

The U.S. is said to have taken another significant step to prepare a prisoner exchange with Iran. The U.S. government has granted an exemption for banks so that they can transfer frozen Iranian assets without fear of U.S. sanctions. This is reported by the Reuters news agency with reference to a US document and the Washington Post, citing government circles. The U.S. Congress was informed about it on Monday, it said. The money was to be transferred from South Korea to Qatar.

According to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the lifting of sanctions is in the interests of the national security of the United States. The transfer of the funds will bring only "limited benefits" to Iran, as they can only be used for humanitarian purposes.

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It has been known for several weeks that the United States and Iran are negotiating a prisoner exchange. In August, Iran's judiciary released several U.S. citizens from custody and initially transferred them to house arrest. A total of five people with U.S. citizenship are to be allowed to leave the Islamic Republic as part of a prisoner exchange.

In return, Iran is demanding around six billion US dollars (5.58 billion euros), which has been frozen in South Korea due to international sanctions. Iranians imprisoned in the United States are also to be released through the deal. The Washington Post wrote that the release of five Iranians was planned. However, work is still underway on details of the agreement.

Criticism of the deal

U.S. citizens in Iranian custody include businessman Siamak Namazi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison for espionage in 2016, businessman Emad Sharghi, who has been imprisoned since 2018, and environmental activist Morad Tahbaz. All three also have Iranian citizenship, Tahbaz also has British citizenship.

Iran, for its part, has been trying for years to secure the release of more than a dozen compatriots imprisoned in the United States, some of whom are also citizens of both countries.

There were already plenty of objections to the planned deal in advance. Critics in the U.S. fear that Tehran will ultimately be able to use the billions of dollars for military purposes.

Germans also imprisoned

Iran repeatedly detains foreigners on charges of espionage or other national security violations. Human rights activists criticize the trials, which are often negotiated behind closed doors, as unfair. The Islamic Republic is also accused of holding foreigners hostage.

A few months ago, Iran released two Austrians, a Belgian and a Dane. The release was related to the transfer of an Iranian diplomat convicted on terrorism charges from Belgium to Tehran. At that time, the Gulf state of Oman, which had already appeared in this way several times between Iran and the West, had mediated.

Several Germans are also imprisoned in Iran. These include German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi, who was arrested in October 2020 and then convicted of "propaganda against the state". Another German-Iranian, Jamshid Sharmahd, was sentenced to death on terrorism charges. It is feared that Iran will actually carry out the death penalty.