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Senate GOP recoils at possible deal to free political prisoners in Iran

Republican lawmakers are worried that a proposal to unfreeze $6 billion in assets to Tehran in exchange for the freeing of five Americans would set a bad precedent for negotiating with the regime.

WASHINGTON (CN) — As the Biden administration negotiates the possible release of five U.S. citizens held prisoner in Iran, Senate Republicans railed on the White House Friday over the proposed terms of the deal, which would unfreeze billions of dollars in seized financial assets for the regime.

This week, Idaho Senator Jim Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a cadre of Senate Republican colleagues took their complaints to White House officials. In a pair of letters sent Friday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, the GOP lawmakers reiterated claims that the proposed deal would serve to benefit Tehran.

“[T]his decision will reinforce an incredibly dangerous precedent and will enable the Iranian regime to increase its destabilizing activities across the Middle East,” the letter read.

Reports emerged last week that Washington had reached consensus with Iran in its efforts to free the detained Americans, who have been moved from prison to house arrest in preparation for a possible prisoner exchange.

As part of the deal — which has yet to be finalized — the U.S. reportedly offered to release roughly $6 billion in Iranian government assets frozen by sanctions, under the condition that such funds be used only for humanitarian purposes.

Republicans, who were fiercely critical of a similar deal approved in 2015 by then-President Barack Obama, are again chafing at the prospect of sanctions relief for Tehran in exchange for American detainees.

“While I welcome home wrongfully detained Americans, unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking and provides a windfall for regime aggression,” Risch wrote in an Aug. 10 post on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

Pointing to similar complaints made about sanctions relief offered during the Obama-era prisoner swap, Senate Republicans accused the Biden administration of violating the State Department’s policy of “no concessions” to groups holding U.S. citizens hostage.

The lawmakers also cited a July 2022 executive order which redoubled efforts to recover political prisoners abroad, in which the White House noted that foreign states “engage in the practice of wrongful detention, including for political leverage or to seek concessions” from Washington.

“The release of such a significant sum to the Iranian regime runs entirely counter to that claim and will only serve to encourage additional hostage taking for financial and political gain,” Friday’s letter read.

The Senate Republicans demanded details of the proposed $6 billion asset release, including information on how the administration plans to ensure Iran only uses the unfrozen funds for humanitarian purposes.

As of Friday, neither Secretary Blinken nor Secretary Yellen had responded to lawmakers. A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately return a request for comment.

During a press conference Aug. 10, Blinken told reporters that there was “more work to be done” to finalize the proposed deal with Iran, but that negotiations were nearing their end. “My belief is that this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare,” the secretary of state said of the prisoners.

New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate’s foreign relations panel, was also not immediately available for comment.

The roughly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets are composed of unpaid oil dues from South Korea, which has been blocked by U.S. sanctions from sending that cash to Tehran. Under Washington’s proposed deal, those assets would be moved to accounts held in Qatar and would only be accessible for government purchases of humanitarian goods such as medicine and food.

As lawmakers bemoan sanctions relief for Tehran, meanwhile, the freedom of five detained Americans remains in the balance. Of U.S. citizens in Iranian custody, only three have been identified: Siamak Namazi, who has been held in Iran since 2015; Morad Tahbaz, who was arrested in January 2018; and Emad Shargi, who was initially arrested in April 2018. Shargi was cleared of charges in 2019, but Tehran in 2020 charged and convicted him of espionage without a trial.

The detained Americans have already faced significant danger during their years at Iran’s notorious Evin prison, which holds the regime’s political prisoners. A prison riot and subsequent fire at the facility in October 2022 killed several inmates and injured nearly 60 others, according to state media reports.

Follow @BenjaminSWeiss
Categories / Government, International, National, Politics

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