By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea said on Monday it is working with all parties involved in unfreezing Iranian funds worth $6 billion, which once released will trigger a carefully choreographed deal between arch foes the United States and Iran to swap detainees.
Once the funds are transferred to Qatar, which mediated the deal during months of talks, five U.S. dual nationals who were imprisoned in Iran are expected to leave Tehran for Doha from where they will travel to the United States, sources previously told Reuters.
In return, five Iranians detained in the U.S. will be released so they can travel to Iran. Iranian officials and Iran’s state news agency have said one of those detainees is expected to remain in the United States.
The precise timing of the fund transfer has yet to be publicly announced.
The deal, first made public on Aug. 10, will remove a major irritant between Washington and Tehran, although the two sides remain deeply at odds over issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its influence around the region to U.S. sanctions and America’s military presence in the Gulf.
“Our government has been consulting closely with involved countries including the United States and Iran to tackle the frozen fund issue, and is currently making efforts to ensure smooth progress of all procedures so that it will be resolved once and for all,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. dual citizens to be released include Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. They were released from prison and put under house arrest last month.
A fourth U.S. citizen was also released into house arrest, while a fifth was already under house arrest. Their identities have not been disclosed.
Iranian officials named the five Iranians to be released by the U.S. as Mehrdad Moin-Ansari, Kambiz Attar-Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, Amin Hassanzadeh and Kaveh Afrasiabi. Two Iranian officials said Afrasiabi would remain in the United States.
As a first step in the deal, Washington waived sanctions to allow the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar. The funds had been blocked in South Korea, normally one of Iran’s largest oil customers, because of U.S. sanctions.
Under the agreement, Doha agreed to monitor how Iran spends the funds to ensure it goes on non-sanctioned humanitarian goods, such as food and medicine.
The transfer of Iran’s funds has drawn criticism from U.S. Republicans who say President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is in effect paying a ransom for U.S. citizens. The White House has defended the deal.
Ties between Washington and Tehran have been boiling since Donald Trump, a Republican, pulled the U.S. out of a nuclear deal between Iran and global powers when he was president in 2018. Reaching another nuclear deal has gained little traction since then, as Biden prepares for the 2024 U.S. election.
Doha hosted at least eight rounds of talks involving Iranian and U.S. negotiators who sat in separate hotels and spoke via Qatari mediators, sources previously told Reuters. Earlier sessions focused mainly on the thorny nuclear issue and later ones on the prisoner releases.
(Reporting by Hyonshee Shin; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Stephen Coates)