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Iran moves American prisoners from prison to house arrest : NPR

Siamak Namazi, shown in this photo before his 2015 imprisonment.

Namazi Family

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Namazi Family

Siamak Namazi, shown in this photo before his 2015 imprisonment.

Namazi Family

In what could signal an eventual deal for their release, four U.S. citizens held in Iran have apparently been moved to house arrest. The transfer came early Thursday and was announced by Jared Genser, a lawyer representing the family of the longest-held American, Siamak Namazi.

Namazi’s brother issued a statement expressing hope for the prisoners’ eventual release from custody.

“We are grateful that Siamak and the other Americans in Iran are out of Evin Prison and will be under house arrest. While this is a positive change, we will not rest until Siamak and the others are back home,” said Babak Namazi. “We have suffered tremendously and indescribably for eight horrific years.”

The lawyer’s statement says three of the Americans were seen leaving the prison and it was believed — but not confirmed — that a fourth was also leaving, because that person had been told with the others of their move in a meeting inside the prison.

Evin Prison is notorious for abuse and harsh conditions. The statement said the four were told they would be moved to a hotel and held there under guard.

The move comes amid reports of months of diplomacy between the U.S., Europe, Iran and mediators in Oman and Qatar. Iran has sought access to $6 billion in its oil revenues paid by South Korea that’s been frozen in banks for years. It also has called for the release of Iranians held in the west. Moving prisoners to house arrest has sometimes been a step in the past to their release.

It’s far from certain the move is a prelude to the eventual deal for their freedom. Ongoing friction between the west and Iran — including occasional Iranian seizures or harassment of ships in the Persian Gulf — could derail any deal underway. Last year’s anti-government protests and the violent response by Iran’s security services seemed to put a hold on diplomacy with Iran.

Siamak Namazi, 51, was arrested in 2015 on a business trip to Iran. In January, he sent a letter from captivity to President Biden, appealing for help in winning his release.

Also being held are Emad Shargi, arrested while traveling in Iran in 2018, and Murad Tahbaz, an environmental activist arrested in Iran in early 2018. The other American has not been publicly identified.

The statement from the Namazis’ lawyer said it appears there is a fifth American who was already being held under house arrest.

The prisoners have faced murky charges, often without lawyers, and sometimes been convicted in trials they weren’t allowed to attend.

Late last year, Iran released Baquer Namazi, Siamak’s father, who had been detained in 2016 while on a trip to Iran to help his son. He was ill and set free on a medical furlough.

Iran also released four Europeans this spring, in return for an Iranian diplomat being held in Belgium on a conviction for involvement in a bomb plot — which Iran says was false.

Any deal for the release of the Americans could be controversial in both the U.S. and Iran. Iranian hardliners might resist better ties with the West. And American critics will likely say any money involved would be tantamount to ransom.

Supporters of a deal are likely to say the money comes from oil revenues already due Iran and that its use will be limited by U.S. sanctions to importing things like food and medical imports.

The U.S. and Iran have conducted prisoner exchanges in the past, including under both the Obama and Trump administrations. At the start of the nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers in 2016, Iran released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans. The U.S. released seven Iranians and dropped charges or removed Interpol red notices on 14 others.

In December 2019, the Trump administration released an Iranian scientist, Massoud Soleimani, who was accused of violating trade sanctions. In return, Iran released Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student studying in Iran, who had been held for three years and charged with espionage.

In 2020, the U.S. released an Iranian scientist who had been accused of stealing trade secrets on nearly the same day that Iran released Marine veteran Michael White, who’d been held in Iran for two years.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear if there is any movement in talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal. That agreement — between Iran, the U.S., Germany, Russia, China, France and the U.K. — lifted sanctions on Iran. In return, inspectors were stationed in Iran and Iran’s program was frozen at about a year away from producing enough uranium needed for a bomb — if it chose to seek one at all.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump abandoned the deal, saying it wasn’t tough enough, and reimposed the sanctions, adding even more.

In return, Iran ramped up its nuclear program again. Analysts say it’s perhaps weeks away from having the fuel needed for a bomb if it wanted one — though it could take a year to make a bomb.

This story originally appeared on NPR

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