Iran confirmed Thursday that it has placed five American prisoners under house arrest in exchange for billions of dollars frozen in South Korea, a development that comes as Tehran for months has indicated it is open to a prisoner swap with Washington.
"Under the deal mediated by a third country, five Iranians jailed in the United States will be released, and Iran's frozen funds in South Korea will be unblocked and transferred to Qatar," Tehran said, according to state news agency IRNA.
Iran said the deal with the U.S. involved between $6 billion and $7 billion that had been frozen as a result of sanctions.
The funds will first be converted from the South Korean currency into euros and then sent to an account in Qatar that Iran would be able to access, according to Iran's semi-official Tasnim news agency.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Thursday called the release of five Americans from prison in Iran a "positive step."
Blinken told reporters at a news conference that the State Department had spoken with the five Americans on Thursday and that he was not aware of any other Americans still detained in Iran. Blinken also said the United States will continue to enforce all of its sanctions on Iran.
Four U.S. prisoners were moved from Tehran's notorious Evin Prison to house arrest at an undisclosed hotel where they will be held under guard by Iranian officials, human rights lawyer Jared Genser said in a statement Thursday.
He said that a fifth American — an unnamed woman whose detention was just recently made public — is already under house arrest.
Genser identified three of the prisoners as Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz. Genser did not identify the fourth individual.
"The move by Iran of the American hostages from Evin Prison to an expected house arrest is an important development," said Genser, pro bono counsel to Namazi. "While I hope this will be the first step to their ultimate release, this is at best the beginning of the end and nothing more. But there are simply no guarantees about what happens from here."
In a Thursday statement, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson confirmed that Iran had transferred five American prisoners "who were unjustly detained" to house arrest.
"While this is an encouraging step, these U.S. citizens — Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi, and two Americans who at this time wish to remain private — should have never been detained in the first place," Watson said. "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."
Watson added that negotiations for their release "remain ongoing and are delicate."
Two Iranian-born U.S. permanent residents jailed for years in Iran on what their families say are bogus charges were not part of Iran's transfer of prisoners to house arrest.
Relatives of the two men, Jamshid Sharmahd and Shahab Dalili, posted messages on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday, bemoaning that the men were being left behind in Iran.
Sharmahd, a German Iranian dual citizen and opposition figure, was sentenced to death in Iran earlier this year, accused of masterminding a deadly 2008 bombing of a mosque in Shiraz. His family denies the charges and says Iranian authorities kidnapped the U.S.-based businessman as he traveled in Dubai in 2020.
Dalili is a retired Iranian ship captain who was residing in the U.S. when he was detained on a visit to Iran in 2016 to attend his father's funeral. Iranian authorities later sentenced him to 10 years in prison on charges of cooperating with a hostile government, an allegation his family also rejects as baseless.
'We will not rest'
Under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, signed into law in December 2020, U.S. authorities are obliged to secure the safe recovery of U.S. nationals wrongfully or unlawfully detained abroad, with U.S. permanent residents being included in the definition of U.S. nationals.
Babak Namazi, Siamak's brother, said he was grateful that his brother is being moved out of Evin Prison, which is infamous as an Iranian site for the detention of political prisoners.
"While this is a positive change, we will not rest until Siamak and others are back home; we continue to count the days until this can happen," Babak Namazi said in a statement. "We have suffered tremendously and indescribably for eight horrific years and wish only to be reunited again as a family."
In a statement, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said, "We are in touch with the families of U.S. citizens involved, and we continue to monitor these individuals' health and welfare closely."
Miller added, "We continue to work diligently to bring these individuals home to their loved ones. They must be allowed to depart Iran and reunite with their loved ones as soon as possible."
Release could take weeks
A source familiar with the talks told Reuters it could be weeks before the U.S. citizens leave Iran, with September as a potential time frame.
Namazi was arrested in 2015 when he was on a business trip to Iran. He was charged with having "relations with a hostile state," referring to the United States. Namazi is a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen.
Tahbaz, an environmentalist, and Shargi, a businessman, were first arrested in 2018. They are also dual U.S.-Iranian citizens.
The U.S. State Department has said that all three are wrongfully detained.
VOA State Department Bureau Chief Nike Ching contributed to this report. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.