Intermediaries from the Middle East and Europe, including Qatar, Oman, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland have been involved over the past two and a half years.
Qatari diplomats have been reportedly orchestrating intense shuttle diplomacy in Doha over the last few months to finalise an agreement to secure the release of five American detainees in Iran, according to a report by CNN.
Acting as intermediaries between the decades-old foes, Qatari diplomats have worked diligently to help bridge the gap and facilitate an elusive agreement between the two sides in the country.
Representatives from the United States and Iran have over the last few months been put up at separate hotels in Qatar – close enough for visual contact but with enough distance to maintain private conversations, a US source told CNN, which described Qatar’s footwork between the two accommodations as ‘shuttle diplomacy’.
Notably, no direct face-to-face contact was made by officials from Tehran and Washington and Qatari officials instead discreetly relayed messages back and forth. This was done through text messages between the Qataris and the US diplomats, with some logistical tasks handled in the most confidential way possible, the American source added.
While the back and forth messaging has been ongoing for around two years, progress was made apparent on Thursday when Iran released four American detainees under house arrest, CNN detailed.
As it stands, five Americans are now under house arrest in Iran, marking the initial stage of a prospective prisoner exchange between the Islamic Republic and the US that could see the latter release Iranian nationals in the US and also unlock about $6 billion in Iranian assets.
If approved, the released funds would be solely accessible for essential needs like food and medicine due to existing sanctions on Iran. According to the report, Qatar’s central bank is set to supervise the funds as part of the agreement, though this may take weeks to execute.
“It’s a positive step that they were released from prison and sent to home detention. But this is just the beginning of a process that I hope and expect will lead to their return home to the United States,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the transfer was announced.
Should the scenario unfold as agreed, Qatar’s intricate diplomacy will have yielded a significant agreement between historical adversaries whose relationship has been strained over the many years.
Iran and the US do not engage directly with one another. Instead, Washington has opted to navigate through alternative channels, relying on intermediaries over the past two and a half years from the Middle East and Europe, primarily Qatar, Oman, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland.
Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani expressed optimism on Friday that the recent agreement between Tehran and Washington for a prisoner release may serve as a preliminary step in re-establishing the 2015 nuclear accord.
Sheikh Mohammed emphasised Doha’s commitment to resolving conflicts through peaceful dialogue, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reported.
The top official also highlighted his nation’s significant role in mediating discussions between Tehran and Washington.
Behind the scenes
On the day before the transfer of the prisoners, the US received what seemed like solid information that the first step of the deal – relocating the four Americans from Evin Prison to house arrest – would occur on Thursday, as per a source privy to the talks.
However, the sources alleged: “There are certainly elements of the Iranian system that do not want this to happen.”
As Thursday dawned in, US officials maintained direct communication with the Swiss envoy in Iran – Washington’s intermediary presence in Iran – who provided updates on the situation on the ground.
In the early afternoon, Washington time, National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson announced that the White House had “received confirmation that Iran has released from prison five Americans who were unjustly detained and has placed them on house arrest.”
With step one of the agreement now complete, a step-by-step progression is expected, including an expected prisoner exchange between the US and Iran.
Another element revolves around making $6 billion in Iranian funds, previously held in a restricted account in South Korea, more accessible for “non-sanctionable trade” of essential goods like food and medicine by relocating the funds to restricted accounts in Qatar.
Insider sources have informed CNN that these funds originated from permissible oil sales and were placed into accounts established during the Trump administration.
The US unilaterally abandoned the agreement in May 2018 under the former Trump administration, which also imposed crippling sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
The extensive US sanctions on Iranian banks, combined with aggression from US officials, have significantly limited Iran’s capacity to fund essential humanitarian imports. This intensification of sanctions has dire implications for the health of Iranians and their ability to obtain necessary medicines, and has led to documented shortages, spanning from vital epilepsy drugs to essential chemotherapy medications for cancer patients in Iran, as reported by Human Rights Watch.
The fund transfer process to Qatar is estimated to span between 30 to 45 days, the sources told CNN, and two other sources indicated that the funds would likely pass through Switzerland before reaching Qatar.
However, executing this transfer will not be straightforward. The US Treasury will play a significant role, given that the movement of Iranian funds to Qatar is projected to take several weeks. Washington is not easing any sanctions to facilitate this transfer, the sources noted.
According to state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), the Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement regarding the release of Iranian assets and the liberation of illegally detained prisoners by the US.
The statement noted the commencement of the process to unfreeze several billion dollars of Iranian assets that were illicitly frozen by the US in South Korea, and noted Tehran has received the necessary assurances of US commitment in this matter.
The Iranian statement also emphasised that the foreign ministry has diligently pursued the release of a number of unjustly detained Iranian citizens in the US, which it said were based on false allegations of attempting to evade US sanctions on Tehran, IRNA reported.
Mohammad Jamshidi, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Political Affairs to the Iranian President, said on Friday that the American detainees will stay in Iran until the transfer of Iranian assets in South Korea, which is expected to be unfrozen as part of a prisoner exchange agreement with the US.
According to the CNN report, the complex negotiations between the adversaries involved officials across the Biden administration, spanning the State Department, the White House, and notably, the US Treasury Department, which occasionally added complexity but was essential to “maintain strict oversight of the Iranian funds”.
Although Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, and Emad Shargi been incarcerated in Iran for a number of years prior to Biden’s presidency, their release from Iran has long been a central goal for the Biden administration.
Namazi was arrested during Biden’s vice presidency and was resolved under an arrangement established during the former Obama administration, however is still held in Iran.
“My belief is that this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare and the nightmare that their families have experienced,” Blinken said.