Sunday, June 23, 2024

Biden admin defends prisoner swap agreement with Iran against Republican attacks

United States President Joe Biden’s administration has defended a looming prisoner swap deal with Tehran against growing criticism from Republican legislators who say it will strengthen the Iranian government.

US Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller said on Tuesday that the administration had to make “real-life choices” to push for the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran.

He dismissed Republican attacks on the agreement, which also will see Washington release five Iranian prisoners in its custody and release $6bn of Iranian funds frozen in South Korea due to US sanctions.

“Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart,” Miller told reporters.

“That is not real life. That is not how this works. That was never going to happen. We had to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home,” he added.

The Biden administration informed Congress on Monday that it issued sanctions waivers to facilitate the transfer of the $6bn in frozen Iranian funds to Qatar.

Iran will be able to access the money but only use it for humanitarian purposes, including food and medicine, the US has claimed.

The waivers sparked a massive outcry from Republican hawks who accused Biden of paying a ransom for hostages — against stated US government policy.

Under US sanctions, Iran was always able to access frozen funds for humanitarian purchases, but banks have been reluctant to engage in any transactions involving Tehran to avoid penalties from Washington.

Miller stated the $6bn transfer is not yet complete but added that the funds would be under strict US Treasury oversight.

However, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said in an interview earlier on Tuesday with NBC News that Iran will spend the $6bn “wherever” it wants.

Miller contradicted that, claiming the US will be able to freeze the funds again if it needs to.

The State Department spokesperson also reiterated that the prisoner swap will not change Washington’s broader approach to Tehran.

“This has been an action we have pursued to free these five wrongfully imprisoned American citizens,” he noted.

“Separately, we do remain focused on constraining Iran’s nuclear programme, constraining its destabilising behaviour. We remain committed to ensuring it never obtains a nuclear weapon.”

The United States, under former President Donald Trump, abandoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and reinstated crippling sanctions that the agreement had lifted.

The talks to revive the 2015 deal kicked off in the Austrian capital city of Vienna in April 2021, with the intention of removing anti-Iran sanctions and examining the US seriousness in rejoining the JCPOA.

The discussions, however, have been at a standstill since August 2022 due to Washington’s insistence on its hard-nosed position of not removing all the sanctions that were slapped on Tehran by the previous US administration.

Iran blamed the failure of JCPOA’s revival on the procrastination of the American side in providing an answer and stressed moving to the next stage would have been possible had the US government shown serious willpower and acted responsibly in its promises.

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