The Biden administration has issued a waiver to allow banks to transfer $6 billion in restricted Iranian funds to Qatar without fear of sanctions – a key step in a deal to free five Americans who have been deemed wrongfully detained in Iran by the US State Department.
The process to bring the Americans home began to move forward in mid-August with the release of four Americans into house arrest. The issuance of the waiver – which the administration informed Congress about on Monday – is the clearest sign yet that the process may be reaching its end stages.
In the notice to Congress – a copy of which was obtained by CNN – Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the US has committed to allow the transfer of the $6 billion held in restricted South Korean accounts to restricted accounts in Qatar to be used for humanitarian goods. Qatar will oversee the disbursal of those funds.
“The transfer requires the involvement of financial institutions from Germany, Ireland, Qatar, the ROK, and Switzerland,” he wrote. The waiver, which Blinken approved on Friday, will allow those institutions to transfer the money to the accounts in Qatar without worry of invoking US sanctions. The waiver was first reported by the Associated Press.
Blinken also confirmed the prisoner swap component to the deal, noting that the US “has committed to release five Iranian nationals currently detained in the United States.”
In a statement to CNN, a State Department spokesperson described the waiver as “not new,” but rather “the technical approval for the transfer already announced.”
“As we have said previously, the U.S. has agreed to allow the transfer of funds from South Korea to restricted accounts held in financial institutions in Qatar and the release of five Iranian nationals currently detained in the United States to facilitate the release of five U.S. citizens detained in Iran,” the spokesperson said, adding that the waiver’s signing marked “a critical step in securing the release of these five U.S. citizens.”
“We continue to work to secure the release of the U.S. citizens unjustly held by Iran, and we continue to monitor their health and welfare closely with the help of our Swiss partners, but we have no update to share at this time,” the spokesperson added.
The White House said the efforts to free the wrongfully detained Americans in Iran “remains a sensitive and ongoing process,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
“While this is a step in the process, no individuals have been or will be released into US custody this week,” Watson said.
Still, the development is likely to be welcome news to the families of the Americans involved in the deal – Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi, and two other Americans who have not been publicly identified – as it signals their nightmare may be coming to an end. Namazi, Tahbaz, and Shargi have all been detained in Iran for years.
It is also likely to face opposition from some Republicans in Congress as well as some of the GOP presidential nominees who spoke out when the contours of the prospective deal were reported last month.
CNN reported on the details following the release of Namazi, Tahbaz, Shargi and a fourth American into house arrest in mid-August. A fifth American was already under house arrest.
The State Department spokesperson noted that the waiver “allows for the transfer of funds from one location to another but does not change the fact that they can only be used to fund Iran’s purchases of humanitarian goods.”
“As we have said, no money is going to Iran directly and no taxpayer funds are being used. The funds held in South Korea are Iran’s funds,” they stressed. “These funds will be moved to restricted accounts in Qatar, and the United States will have oversight as to how and when these funds are used.”
“It is longstanding U.S. policy to ensure our sanctions do not prevent food, medicine, and other humanitarian goods and services from flowing to ordinary people, no matter how objectionable their governments,” the spokesperson continued, noting that the US has “not lifted any of our sanctions on Iran, and Iran is not receiving any sanctions relief. “
At the time the Americans were transferred to house arrest, a source familiar with the negotiations described the development as “an encouraging step,” noting that there’s “a roadmap that has basically been agreed.” However, they said that “there’s a number of things here that that still need to be worked out” in the prospective deal.
“There’s kind of a step-by-step process that’s going to unfold. So, the first step is getting our people out of prison,” the source said.
“Then there will be arrangements in place we’ve agreed to do some things, Iran has agreed to do some things that will eventually lead to the Americans coming home,” they said.
“It’s going to be a period of weeks” before the five Americans could be back in the US, the source said at the time, noting a September timeframe.
The potential breakthrough came after more than a year of indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
This story has been updated with additional information.