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White House defends plan to swap money and prisoners for Americans held in Iran

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Biden administration has agreed to a prisoner swap with Iran. The deal will also give Tehran access to $6 billion of its own oil revenue. Some in Congress are warning that this will just encourage more Iranian hostage taking, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Five Americans are expected to be released as soon as next week, and the U.S. had to make some difficult decisions, according to State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

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MATTHEW MILLER: We have to make tough choices and engage in tough negotiations to bring these American citizens home. There were five American citizens who have been jailed under brutal conditions, one of them for more than eight years. And the secretary and the president decided that we need to do everything we can to bring them home, and that's what we're doing.

KELEMEN: He's talking about American businessman Siamak Namazi, who was passed over in several previous prisoner swaps with Iran. Iran says that under this deal, it will get back five of its prisoners convicted in the U.S., mostly for sanctions violations. It will also get access to $6 billion that have been frozen in a bank account in South Korea. This is Iranian oil revenue. And Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi told NBC News that his country can use it however it wants. He spoke through an interpreter making a point that the U.S. disputes.

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PRESIDENT EBRAHIM RAISI: (Through interpreter) This money belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran. And naturally, we will decide - the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide to spend it wherever we need it.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration says that's not the case. Right now the money is being moved from South Korea to Qatar. The secretary of state issued a waiver so that banks will feel comfortable doing these transactions. Miller says once the $6 billion are in Qatar, they'll be put in a restricted account.

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MILLER: It will be held there under strict oversight by the United States Treasury Department. And the money can only be used for humanitarian purposes. And we will remain vigilant in watching the spending of those funds and have the ability to freeze them again if we need to.

KELEMEN: House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul is not so sure. He says he's deeply concerned that the State Department issued a sanctions waiver to facilitate this transfer of funds. He says it creates a, quote, "direct incentive for America's adversaries to conduct future hostage taking." The Republican congressman also thinks the timing is, in his words, egregious. This week, Iranians mark one year since the death of a young woman at the hands of morality police, a killing that sparked massive protests in Iran and a fierce crackdown by authorities.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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