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A deal to get imprisoned Americans home prompts concerns on what Iran gets in return

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To a deal now that the Biden administration is billing as the beginning of the end of a nightmare. We learned yesterday that four Americans are out of Iran's notorious Evin Prison. Along with another American, they are now being held under house arrest. The hope is that Tehran and Washington will soon sort final details and clear the way for them to come home to the U.S. Meanwhile, there are questions about something Iran will apparently get in return - access to $6 billion. Let's bring in deputy national security adviser John Finer. He's on the line from the White House. John Finer, welcome.

JOHN FINER: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: What's the timeline? How soon could these Americans actually set foot on U.S. soil?

FINER: Well, Mary Louise, we're not going to get into all of the details of that because they are still inside Iran, and because this process is still unfolding, we are reluctant to discuss details that we worry could compromise the consummation of this deal. But we are encouraged by what happened yesterday. And we are going to do everything possible to make sure that this deal is completed and the Americans return as soon as possible.

KELLY: Understood. Are you looking at maybe days, maybe weeks? I mean, what's the ballpark?

FINER: I'd say more than days, but it is going to be soon.

KELLY: And how are they doing? Siamak Namazi, the longest-held U.S citizen in Iran, has been there since he was detained in 2015. What's their condition?

FINER: You know, Mary Louise, these people have been through quite a lot. As you said, Siamak Namazi has been detained and then imprisoned by the Iranians going back eight years. There are other Americans who have been held since before this administration, the Biden administration took office, and then some who were more recently picked up. All of them have been held in very hard conditions. And not only is this an ordeal for these five Americans, but their families have been through quite a lot as well as they waited for news and hoped for their eventual return, which is what we're trying to bring about.

KELLY: Yeah. OK. So I hear you saying you don't want to get into details until everything is done and dusted and they're home safe. However, it has become clear that this will apparently involve the transfer of some $6 billion that does belong to Iran but which the U.S. had blocked Iran from accessing. The idea now is the money will be moved to an account in Qatar, and it will only be available for use to buy food, to buy medicine, to buy stuff that is not under U.S. sanctions. My question - how can you be sure? What's the plan to monitor this money?

FINER: So you've characterized this accurately. This is - would be $6 billion that can only be used for humanitarian purposes, as you said.

KELLY: But how do you guarantee that's what it will be used for?

FINER: And the reason we can be confident of that is that the U.S. Treasury Department has oversight over all of the funds in this account, and we'll be able to monitor any transactions that they are used for to make sure that they're used for the proper purposes. And by the way, it's important to note, in light of some of the criticism that's been made, that these are accounts, and this is a process that was actually set up under the previous administration that were used during that administration for Iranian purchases. Now, we have no record of how those funds were used by our predecessors, but we are going to be very carefully monitoring and using very careful oversight, again, through the Treasury Department to make sure it's used the way it's intended.

KELLY: You bring up the criticism. To critics who argue that this will incentivize hostage taking, you say what?

FINER: I want to be very clear that the United States has actively and assertively discouraged Americans from traveling to countries like Iran, where we have real concerns that Americans could be subjected to arbitrary detention or imprisonment or abduction. And what's important now is that some of these people, after many years, up to eight years in one case, now have a very good chance of being reunited with their families. And we're working towards that.

KELLY: Yeah. Let me just push you on this critique, though, because I want to let you address it directly. This is, among many others, Senator Jim Risch of Idaho - this is the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate - who says he welcomes home wrongfully detained Americans, but - and I quote - "unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets dangerously further incentivizes hostage taking and provides a windfall for regime aggression."

FINER: Look. I think that there are some people who want to have it both ways, who want Americans to be welcomed back and reunited with their families and don't want any benefit to accrue to people who perpetrate these atrocious acts of taking hostages and wrongfully detaining people. And we agree that they are atrocious acts. But President Biden has been clear and unapologetic that he sees it in the national interest and in the interest of this administration, not to mention in the clear interest of the individuals and the families involved, that when people find themselves in these situations, even though we have discouraged them from putting themselves in harm's way and at risk, we will do what we can to try to bring them home.

KELLY: Before I let you go, I want to pivot to what is perhaps the biggest point of tension with Iran, their nuclear program, their nuclear ambitions. Is your hope that progress on this prisoner issue may crack open the door to progress on that front?

FINER: Look. We've been quite clear that we believe diplomatic constraints on Iran's nuclear program is the best way to ensure that it does not continue to move forward and that we believe it was a big mistake by our predecessors to relieve Iran of those constraints by pulling out of the nuclear deal. But I want to be very clear. We are doing the current process to try to release the five Americans who are still inside Iran on the merits and on its own, not as some precursor to some other potential arrangement.

KELLY: We've been speaking with John Finer, deputy national security adviser for the White House, from where he just joined us. John Finer, thank you for your time.

FINER: 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.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.