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Americans moved out of prison in deal that could see US releasing Iranian funds and prisoners

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By Christiane Amanpour, Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood, CNN

(CNN) — Five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran are now under house arrest – the first step in a deal between the United States and Iran that would include making $6 billion in Iranian funds more accessible to Tehran in exchange for their return to the US.

Four of the Americans – Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and a fourth American who has not been identified publicly – were moved out of Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on Thursday, the White House confirmed. The fifth American, who also has not been publicly identified, was already under house arrest, according to a source familiar with the negotiations.

The source described Thursday’s development as “an encouraging step,” noting that there’s “a roadmap that has basically been agreed.” However, they said that “there’s a number of things here that that still need to be worked out” in the prospective deal to bring the Americans home to the United States.

Among the roadmap are plans to make $6 billion in Iranian funds that have been in a restricted account in South Korea more readily available for “non-sanctionable trade” of goods like food and medicine by moving them to “a restricted account elsewhere.” The source said that this would not be giving new funds to Iran, noting that those funds are currently in South Korean accounts and able to be used for humanitarian purposes and non-sanctionable trade. There have been challenges in converting the Korean currency.

There is also expected to be a prisoner swap component to the deal, though the source said that “no prisoners held in the US will be released in exchange for these Americans moving to house arrest.”

The Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations said in a statement that “as part of a humanitarian cooperation agreement mediated by a third-party government, Iran and the US have agreed to reciprocally release and pardon five prisoners.”

“The transfer of these prisoners to out of prison marks a significant initial step in the implementation of this agreement,” they said.

“There’s kind of a step-by-step process that’s going to unfold. So, the first step is getting our people out of prison,” the source said. Iran will not immediately “gain any benefit” on Thursday, the source familiar with the negotiations said.

“Then there will be arrangements in place we’ve agreed to do some things, Iran has agreed to do some things that will eventually lead to the Americans coming home,” they said.

“It’s going to be a period of weeks” before the five Americans could be back in the US, the source added, noting a September timeframe.

The source did not get into specific details about the next steps, saying it was “too early” to do that.

“This has been a very intensive process of negotiations with the Iranians,” the source said, noting that the US had worked with partners including Qatar, Oman and Switzerland, which serves as the US protecting power in Iran. The US does not have diplomatic relations with Tehran and therefore has no embassy or diplomats on the ground in the country. Iraq and the United Arab Emirates also played a role, the source said.

The source familiar told reporters that US was “very clear with the Iranians that to get anywhere the Americans have to be out of Evin Prison.”

National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement Thursday that the US “received confirmation that Iran has released from prison five Americans who were unjustly detained and has placed them on house arrest.”

“We will continue to monitor their condition as closely as possible. Of course, we will not rest until they are all back home in the United States,” she said.

“Until that time, negotiations for their eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate. We will, therefore, have little in the way of details to provide about the state of their house arrest or about our efforts to secure their freedom,” Watson said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that the State Department had spoken that day with the five wrongfully detained Americans.

“I think they’re, needless to say, very happy to be out of prison,” the top US diplomat said at a joint press conference with the Mexican foreign secretary at the State Department.

“I don’t want to get ahead of its conclusion, because there’s more work to be done to actually bring them home,” Blinken said. “My belief is that this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare, and the nightmare that their families have experienced.”

The secretary said he did not know of any other Americans wrongfully detained in Iran, saying: “I’m not aware of anyone beyond the five that we’re talking about.”

He also said that there would be no sanctions relief for Iran in exchange for the release of the Americans.

“In any event, in any respect, Iran will not be receiving any sanctions relief,” said Blinken, “and in any instance where we would engage in such efforts to bring Americans home from Iran, Iran’s own funds would be used, and transferred to restricted accounts such that the monies can only be used for humanitarian purposes, which as you know is permitted under our sanctions.”

Jared Genser, the pro-bono counsel for Namazi, strongly cautioned against being overly optimistic about freedom for the Americans until they are actually out of Iran.

The Americans publicly known to be in the deal – Namazi, Shargi, and Tahbaz – have spent years in prison there. Namazi is the longest-held American in Iran, arrested in 2015 while on a business trip. He was charged with having “relations with a hostile state,” referring to the US. Namazi is a dual Iranian-US citizen. His father, Baquer Namazi, was released in order to receive medical treatment in October 2022 after more than six years in detention in Iran.

“There are simply no guarantees about what happens from here,” he said.

Shargi, a businessman, and Tahbaz, an environmentalist, were first arrested in 2018. They too are dual Iranian-US citizens.

All three have been declared wrongfully detained by the US State Department.

In March, in an unprecedented interview with CNN from inside Evin Prison, Namazi made an emotional plea to US President Joe Biden to put the “liberty of innocent Americans above politics” and ramp up efforts to secure his release.

“I remain deeply worried that the White House just doesn’t appreciate how dire our situation has become,” said Namazi, who had been left behind in a deal under the Obama administration.

Namazi’s family, as well as the Shargi and Tahbaz families, had made urgent calls for the Biden administration to intensify efforts to bring their loved ones home. They welcomed the news that their loved ones had been released on house arrest, but said they were awaiting the day that they were finally back in the US.

“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 others are back home; we continue to count the days until this can happen. We have suffered tremendously and indescribably for eight horrific years and wish only to be reunited again as a family,” said Babak Namazi, Siamak’s brother.

“We are encouraged by the development today on the conditions of our father and the other American hostages, but they are not free until they are home safely and reunited with their families,” Tara Tahbaz, Morad Tahbaz’s daugher, said.

Neda Sharghi, the sister of Emad Shargi, said she was aware of the reports of her brother’s move to house arrest.

“My family has faith in the work that President Biden and government officials have undertaken to bring our families home and hope to receive that news soon,” she said.

The source familiar with the negotiations said Biden “has been focused on this really since the first day in office.”

“I think his record demonstrates his intensive focus on bringing Americans home, of course under conditions that we believe are in our interests. We believe what has been arranged here very much is,” they said.

The negotiations over the detained Americans are separate from discussions over Iran’s nuclear program, the source said, but noted that if the Americans are ultimately freed, “it could perhaps help facilitate discussions in other areas.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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CNN’s Ana Bickford and Michael Conte contributed to this report.

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