New details have emerged of an apparently imminent prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran, with the U.S. acknowledging for the first time that as part of the deal, it will free five Iranians whose names the Iranian government confirmed to VOA.
The U.S. acknowledgment of its agreement to free five Iranians came in a State Department statement sent to VOA late Monday. Hours earlier, Western news agencies reported that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had notified the U.S. Congress of the impending move.
The U.S. and Iran already had confirmed on August 10 that under the prisoner deal, Tehran also would release five American citizens whom Washington has said were wrongfully detained by Tehran.
“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,” a State Department spokesperson wrote to VOA.
Iran’s U.N. mission in New York confirmed in a message to VOA the names of the five Iranians whose freedom it expects to secure in the prisoner swap. The names were first reported earlier Monday by the Al-Monitor news site.
The five Iranian nationals named by Iran include Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Ansari, Amin Hasanzadeh, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Kambiz Attar Kashani. All five were among the 11 Iranians first identified by VOA in an August 24 report as potential candidates for inclusion in a U.S.-Iran exchange.
Asked by VOA to confirm whether the five individuals identified by Iran will be freed, the State Department spokesperson declined to address the issue. All were arrested on federal charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran or providing Tehran with other forms of illicit help.
There also was no confirmation from the U.S. on when or how the five Americans and five Iranians will be swapped.
The State Department spokesperson said the U.S. continues to work for the release of the five American citizens and to monitor their health and welfare closely with the help of its Swiss partners but added: "We have no update to share at this time.”
Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani as saying Monday that the exchange will happen “in the near future.”
Of the five individuals named by Iran, four are Iranians without U.S. citizenship: Afrasiabi, Ansari, Hasanzadeh and Kafrani. Afrasiabi and Hasanzadeh are permanent U.S. residents, while Ansari and Kafrani have no legal status in the U.S. The fifth Iranian, Kashani, is an Iranian American dual national.
Three of the five are on supervised pre-trial release: Afrasiabi, Hasanzadeh and Kafrani. Their inclusion in a prisoner deal would mean that federal charges against them are dropped and they are freed from restrictions on their movements outside of their homes.
The other two, Ansari and Kashani, are serving sentences in federal prisons in Louisiana and Michigan, respectively. Their inclusion in the deal would mean being freed several months before concluding their prison terms, which end in December for Ansari and February for Kashani.
Speaking to VOA on Monday, Barry Rosen, a former U.S. hostage in Iran, said he expects most of the five Iranians to be freed by the U.S. will not return to Iran as they have significant ties to the U.S. He said an exchange of Iranian and American prisoners on an airport tarmac somewhere in the Middle East would provide Iran with a propaganda boost, but he doubted the U.S. would agree to choreograph the swap in such a way.
Critics of the Biden administration’s Iran policy told VOA that the agreement to free five Iranians would have negative consequences for the U.S.
“The Islamic republic will herald this as a significant win for its long-standing policy of seizing Western hostages in return for ransom and the freeing of duly-convicted Iranian nationals,” said Andrea Stricker of Washington-based research group Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Rather than facing U.S. penalties or repercussions, the regime will be emboldened to continue abducting innocent people,” she added.
The Biden administration has rejected critics’ characterizations of the unfreezing of $6 billion in funds in South Korean banks as a ransom payment. It has said Tehran will regain access to Iranian funds that had been frozen under U.S. sanctions and will be able to access them only via a third party for humanitarian purchases under U.S. supervision.
Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, said he believes the U.S. unfreezing of $6 billion should have been “more than enough” to secure the release of the Americans held by Iran. “The additional release of Iranians charged with U.S. crimes is an attempt by Tehran to create a false equivalence between the justice system in the United States and the injustice system in Iran,” Brodsky said.
Sina Toosi, a researcher at the Washington-based Center for International Policy and a supporter of the emerging U.S.-Iran deal, reacted positively to Monday’s developments in a post on the X social media platform.
“It is a welcome development that the U.S. and Iran are close to implementing an agreement that will bring some relief to the families of unjustly held prisoners, as well as to millions of Iranians suffering from an economic crisis caused by U.S. sanctions,” Toosi wrote.
In August, Iran confirmed that it had placed the five American prisoners under house arrest. The U.S. named three of them as Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz but declined to name the other two whose detentions had not previously been confirmed, citing their privacy.
Namazi, Shargi, Tahbaz and one of the other U.S. prisoners were moved from Tehran's notorious Evin Prison to house arrest at an undisclosed hotel where they would be held under guard by Iranian officials, human rights lawyer Jared Genser said in a statement August 10. He said the fifth American, a woman, already was under house arrest.