White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said that a prisoner swap deal between the United States and Iran is “on track”, less than two weeks after Tehran moved five detained US citizens to house arrest.
Sullivan’s comments on Tuesday marked a rare public expression of confidence from Washington that the prisoner swap would take place.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
“We believe that things are proceeding according to the understanding that we’ve reached with Iran,” Sullivan told reporters during a conference call.
“I don’t have an exact timetable for you because there [are] steps that need to yet unfold. But we believe that that remains on track.”
Several news outlets reported earlier this month that Washington and Tehran were working on a deal to release the five American citizens in exchange for allowing Iran to access $6bn in funds that have been frozen in South Korea due to US sanctions.
The tentative deal would also see the administration of US President Joe Biden free several Iranian nationals imprisoned in the United States.
But US officials previously cautioned that the deal had not been finalised.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Iran’s decision to move the detained Americans from prison to house arrest as a “positive step”, but he stressed that “they are not home yet”.
On Monday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said no specific timeline had been set for completing the exchange, but that “it will take a maximum of two months for this process to take place”.
News of the purported deal came at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries after the US bolstered its military presence in the Gulf after accusing Iran of seizing and intercepting international ships in the strategic waters.
Experts welcomed the announcement as an important step, but said it does not fundamentally shift the US-Iran relationship.
“Nothing about our overall approach to Iran has changed,” Blinken also said last week. “We continue to pursue a strategy of deterrence, of pressure and diplomacy.”
Still, the release of the $6bn in funds to Tehran would be significant for a country struggling under the weight of US sanctions.
Washington has heaped economic pressure on Tehran as efforts to return to a multilateral 2015 Iranian nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have so far failed.
Former US President Donald Trump in 2018 nixed the JCPOA, which had seen Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions against its economy.
Blinken has said the $6bn will be moved to “restricted accounts” that can be accessed solely for “humanitarian purposes”, while Iranian officials have said Tehran will decide how the money is used.
Meanwhile, businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Shargi, 58, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also has British citizenship, are among the five Americans detained in Iran who are expected to be released as part of the swap.
The names of the two others have not been released publicly.
It remains unclear which Iranian prisoners are part of the tentative deal. The New York Times reported earlier this month that “a handful of Iranian nationals serving prison sentences for violating sanctions on Iran” would be released.