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Four Americans move from Iran prison to house arrest as part of a prisoner swap

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Four Americans got out of Iran's notorious Evin Prison today as part of a prisoner swap that is in the works with Iran. But along with one other American, they are still being held under house arrest as the U.S. and Iran finalize a deal to win their release. That could take weeks. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from the State Department. And, Michele, tell us what happened today.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Right. So as you said, these four Americans who had been held in Evin were brought to a hotel in Tehran, and they're going to remain there under house arrest until this deal is finalized. They include Siamak Namazi. He's a 51-year-old businessman who's been held the longest, since 2015. His father, who had also been jailed, was allowed to leave Iran last year for health reasons. But Siamak had been left behind in several prisoner exchanges with Iran over the years. And I talked to the family lawyer, Jared Genser, today, and he said Siamak's mother was able to see him at the hotel.

JARED GENSER: I just saw a picture of their being reunited, which was incredibly moving. It won't be something we can put out publicly, of course. But it's just so incredibly exciting to see where at least we've gotten to today.

SUMMERS: That's one of the four Americans. What can you tell us about the others?

KELEMEN: So the second is a well-known environmentalist named Morad Tahbaz. There's also a businessman, Emad Shargi, and a fourth American who the White House hasn't named. They also haven't named the fifth American, a woman who's part of these negotiations, but who was already out under house arrest before today. The U.S. says all five should never have been detained. Some have languished for years, convicted in secret courts with murky charges. The U.S. considered all of them wrongfully detained.

SUMMERS: What information do we have about the deal that could secure their full release?

KELEMEN: So Iranian authorities have gone on record in their state media saying that the U.S. is going to release some Iranian prisoners in exchange. They also say that Iran is going to get access to billions of dollars that South Korea owes for oil shipments. And that's tracking with what we're hearing from sources familiar with the negotiations. There's about $6 billion, or the equivalent in other currencies, that have been stuck in South Korea. And the idea is that that money is going to be moved to another bank in Qatar and that Iran would be able to use it to buy food and medicine or anything that isn't under U.S. sanctions. There's still some work to do on that. The White House says these negotiations are ongoing and delicate.

SUMMERS: So is the White House expecting political pushback, given the fact that there is money involved here?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, they're certainly bracing for that. The Biden administration has been briefing members of Congress on all of this, and they make the case that this is Iran's money. But I don't think that's going to stop critics from seeing this as a ransom payment. Critics are going to point out that while the funds are meant to be used for humanitarian goods, money is fungible. So even with tight restrictions in place, it could be a boon for Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

SUMMERS: So, Michele, bottom line, there is a deal, but it's not done yet?

KELEMEN: Right. There's a plan, but a lot could go wrong. Genser, the lawyer, says he's gone through a lot of false starts over the years that he's been involved in this. Take a listen to what he had to say.

GENSER: I won't believe it until it's actually done. But the fact that Iran is publicly acknowledging that there's a deal and is saying that these Americans are going to be pardoned gives me much greater hope that this is going to actually happen because now they're publicly on the record having said that this is what - it was going to happen.

KELEMEN: So now he's hoping that both sides are really going to follow through. Sources have told us that this could take several weeks before the five Americans can come home. And though the Iranians have said they agreed to this deal, there are hard-liners there who might want to derail it, so - and a lot of disputes between the U.S. and Iran that could get in the way. So we'll have to watch.

SUMMERS: Indeed. NPR's Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. 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.