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Iran moves American prisoners to house arrest as a step in a swap for their release

Siamak Namazi, shown in this photo before his 2015 imprisonment.
Namazi Family
Siamak Namazi, shown in this photo before his 2015 imprisonment.

As part of a swap for their eventual deal for their release, four U.S. citizens held in Iran have been moved to house arrest. The transfer came early Thursday and was announced by Jared Genser, a lawyer representing the family of the longest-held American, Siamak Namazi.

Namazi's brother issued a statement expressing hope for the prisoners' eventual release from custody.

"We are 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 the others are back home," said Babak Namazi. "We have suffered tremendously and indescribably for eight horrific years."

The lawyer's statement says three of the Americans were seen leaving the prison and it was believed — but not confirmed at that time — that a fourth was also leaving, because that person had been told with the others of their move in a meeting inside the prison. Later, U.S. officials confirmed the fourth person was moved.

Evin Prison is notorious for abuse and harsh conditions. The lawyer's statement said the four were told they would be moved to a hotel and held there under guard. A fifth American — also not publicly identified — was already being held in house arrest, and is part of the agreement.

Shortly after the transfer, Iran's official news agency reported that the five Americans' freedom would be eventually granted in exchange for five Iranians held in the U.S. and access to money in frozen accounts in South Korea.
Sources familiar with the deal say the accounts hold $6 billion in oil revenues paid to Iran by South Korea that's been frozen in banks for years amid economic sanctions on Iran. The money was paid under oil sales approved by the Trump administration and then frozen.

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that the Americans "should have never been detained in the first place. We will continue to monitor their condition as closely as possible. Of course, we will not rest until they are all back home in the United States. Until that time, negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate."

The release from Iran of the five Americans is expected to take weeks and is still far from certain. Ongoing friction between the West and Iran — including occasional Iranian seizures or harassment of ships in the Persian Gulf — could derail any deal underway. Last year's antigovernment protests and the violent response by Iran's security services seemed to put a hold on diplomacy with Iran.

Siamak Namazi, 51, was arrested in 2015 on a business trip to Iran. In January, he sent a letter from captivity to President Biden, appealing for help in winning his release.

Also being heldare Emad Shargi, arrested while traveling in Iran in 2018, and Murad Tahbaz, an environmental activist arrested in Iran in early 2018. The other American has not been publicly identified.

The prisoners have faced murky charges, often without lawyers, and sometimes been convicted in trials they weren't allowed to attend.

Late last year, Iran released Baquer Namazi, Siamak's father, who had been detained in 2016 while on a trip to Iran to help his son. He was ill and set free on a medical furlough.

Iran also released four Europeans this spring, in return for an Iranian diplomat being held in Belgium on a conviction for involvement in a bomb plot — which Iran says was false.

The agreement for the release of the Americans will be controversial in both the U.S. and Iran. Iranian hardliners might resist or try to scuttle better ties with the West. And American critics will likely say any money involved would be tantamount to ransom.

Supporters of a deal are likely to point out the money comes from oil revenues already due Iran and that it will be held in Qatar and its use will be limited by U.S. sanctions to importing things like food and medical imports.

The U.S. and Iran have conducted prisoner exchanges in the past, including under both the Obama and Trump administrations. At the start of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers in 2016, Iran released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans. The U.S. released seven Iraniansand dropped charges or removed Interpol red notices on 14 others.

In December 2019, the Trump administration released an Iranian scientist, Massoud Soleimani, who was accused of violating trade sanctions. In return, Iran released Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student studying in Iran, who had been held for three years and charged with espionage.

In 2020, the U.S. released an Iranian scientist who had been accused of stealing trade secrets on nearly the same day that Iran released Marine veteran Michael White, who'd been held in Iran for two years.

Meanwhile, it's unclear if there is any movement in talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal. That agreement — between Iran, the U.S., Germany, Russia, China, France and the U.K. — lifted sanctions on Iran. In return, inspectors were stationed in Iran and Iran's program was frozen at about a year away from producing enough uranium needed for a bomb — if it chose to seek one at all.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it wasn't tough enough, and reimposed the sanctions, adding even more.

In return, Iran ramped up its nuclear program again. Analysts say it's perhaps weeksaway from having the fuel needed for a bomb if it wanted one — though it could take a year to make a bomb.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
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