DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Five prisoners wanted by the United States in an exchange with Iran He left Tehran on Monday, an official said.
Flight tracking data analyzed by the AP showed that a Qatar Airways flight took off at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been used for exchanges in the past. Iranian state media said shortly afterward that the flight had left Tehran.
The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the exchange was still in process.
Earlier, officials said the swap would take place after nearly $6 billion in once-frozen Iranian assets arrived in Qatar, a key element of the planned swap.
Despite the deal, Tensions will almost certainly remain high between the United States and Iran, which are locked in several disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it is now enriching uranium further than ever to weapons-grade levels.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was the first to acknowledge that the exchange would take place on Monday. He said cash sought for the exchange that had been held by South Korea was now in Qatar.
Kanaani made his comments during a news conference broadcast on state television, but the broadcast was cut immediately after his comments.
“Fortunately, Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released and, God willing, today the assets will begin to be fully controlled by the government and the nation,” Kanaani said.
“As for the prisoner exchange, it will take place today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from US prisons,” he added. “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be handed over to the American side.”
He said two of the Iranian prisoners will remain in the United States.
The official said Qatar had notified Iranian and American officials that the money had been transferred to the Gulf Arab nation, which serves as an intermediary between the United States and Iran.
Mohammad Reza Farzin, head of Iran’s Central Bank, later appeared on state television to acknowledge receipt of more than 5.5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in accounts in Qatar. Months ago, Iran had planned to receive up to 7 billion dollars.
Washington had no comment on the announcement. The planned exchange is ahead of the call for world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week in New York, where Iran’s hardline president Ebrahim Raisi will speak.
A Qatar Airways plane landed Monday morning at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, according to flight tracking data analyzed by the AP. Qatar Airways uses Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport for its commercial flights, but previous prisoner releases have taken place in Mehrabad.
Kanaani’s announcement comes weeks after Iran said five Iranian-Americans had been transferred from prison to house arrest as part of a confidence-building measure. Meanwhile, Seoul allowed the frozen assets, in South Korean won, to be converted into euros.
The planned exchange has unfolded amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility that U.S. troops Boarding and surveillance of commercial ships. in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.
The agreement also already opened US President Joe Biden to new criticism from Republicans and others who say the administration is helping boost the Iranian economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to U.S. troops and Middle East allies. That could also have implications for his re-election campaign.
On the U.S. side, Washington has said the planned exchange includes Siamak Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence. All charges have been widely criticized by their families, activists and the US government.
U.S. officials have so far declined to identify the fourth and fifth prisoners.
The five prisoners Iran has said it is seeking are mostly being held for allegedly trying to export banned material to Iran, such as dual-use electronics that can be used by a military.
The cash represents money that South Korea owed Iran, but had not yet paid, for oil purchased before the United States imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The United States maintains that once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts and can only be used for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. Those transactions are currently permitted under US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic for the advancement of its nuclear program.
Iranian government officials have largely agreed with that explanation, although some hardliners have insisted, without providing evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.
Iran and the United States have a history of prisoner exchanges dating back to the storming of the American embassy in 1979 and the hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution. Their most recent major exchange occurred in 2016, when Iran reached a deal with world powers to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
Four American captives, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, flew home from Iran at the time, and several Iranians in the United States won their freedom. That same day, then-President Barack Obama’s administration airlifted $400 million in cash to Tehran.
The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners, including those with dual nationality, as bargaining chips, an accusation Tehran rejects.
Negotiations over a major prisoner swap collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018. Beginning the following year, a series of attacks and ship seizures blamed on Iran have raised tensions.
Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program is now enriched to weapons-grade levels more than ever before. While the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombsIt would likely take months more to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it to put on a missile, if Iran decided to pursue one.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful, and the U.S. intelligence community has maintained its assessment that Iran is not seeking an atomic bomb.
Iran has taken steps in recent months to resolve some issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But advances in its program have raised fears of a broader regional conflagration, as Israel, a nuclear power, has said it would not allow Tehran to develop the bomb. Israel bombed both Iraq and Syria to stop their nuclear programs, adding weight to the threat. He is also suspected of carrying out a series of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists.
Iran also supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones that Moscow uses to attack sites in Ukraine in its war against kyiv, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.