Tehran has temporarily released Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman, after seven years of detention and lifted the travel ban on his father in what could be preparation for a prisoner swap between Iran and the US.
A UN spokesman said on Saturday that Siamak’s father Baquer, 85, had been permitted to leave the country for medical treatment after Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. The spokesman said Guterres was also pleased to learn Siamak Namazi had also been “released from detention”.
Hojjat Kermani, the family’s lawyer, told the Financial Times that Siamak Namazi was released on Saturday evening for one week “for the time being” following “his repeated requests to be alongside his father”, who needed an operation because of his cardiac problems.
Iran’s move could be considered a goodwill gesture ahead of a broader prisoner swap deal. Such a deal could lead to the unfreezing of Iranian funds held at South Korea’s central bank, a diplomat aware of the negotiations, said. Qatar, the UN and Switzerland have been involved in the negotiations, the diplomat said.
More than $7bn of Iran’s income from oil shipments has been frozen in two South Korean banks due to US sanctions in 2018.
Iranian officials have not yet commented on the new move. But Nournews, a news service affiliated to the Supreme National Security Council, said that “in recent weeks, there have been intensive talks, with the mediation of one of the regional countries, about the simultaneous release of prisoners in Iran and the US.”
Nournews added that “billions” of dollars of Iranian money could be unfrozen.
US officials have previously said that Washington has been indirectly negotiating with Iran in parallel to nuclear talks in a bid to secure the release of four American citizens in Iran as part of a prisoner swap deal. Iran is also seeking the return of a number of Iranians held in the US.
While the negotiations on the release of prisoners are separate to the nuclear talks, US officials have suggested that it would be hard to envisage the Biden administration agreeing to rejoin the 2015 accord without movement on the prisoners.
US President Joe Biden pledged to rejoin the accord Tehran signed with world powers and lift many sanctions on Iran if the Islamic republic agreed to drastically reduce its nuclear activity and fall back into compliance with the deal. But diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement have been repeatedly stalled by disputes over outstanding issues, with both sides blaming the other for the lack of a breakthrough.
Tensions between Iran and the US soared after former President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear accord in 2018 and imposed waves of crippling sanctions on the republic.
The nuclear talks remain deadlocked after Washington and Tehran failed to agree on the most recent draft document proposed by the EU, which is mediating those negotiations, and diplomats and analysts do not expect any progress until after the US midterm elections. But the indirect discussions around a potential prisoner swap have continued.
Siamak Namazi, a 51-year-old Dubai-based businessman, was arrested in 2015 and sentenced to 10 years in jail for collaborating with a foreign government — the US. Namazi is the longest-held Iranian-American imprisoned in Iran, according to a statement from his US-based legal team.
Baquer Namazi is a former Unicef official who was arrested in 2016. He was also sentenced to ten years in prison on similar charges to his son. His sentence was commuted in 2020 but he faced a travel ban.
The other Iranian-American prisoners are Morad Tahbaz, a 67-year-old businessman and environmental activist, and Emad Sharghi, a 57-year-old businessman.
Jared Genser, an international lawyer for the Namazis, said in a post on Twitter that Siamak Namazi “is spending a night at home with his parents in Tehran”. He added that “we won’t rest until they return to the US & their long nightmare has ended.”