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Iran, US on verge of prisoner swap under Qatar-mediated deal



(Last Updated On: September 11, 2023)

When $6 billion of unfrozen Iranian funds are wired to banks in Qatar as early as next week, it will trigger a carefully choreographed sequence that will see as many as five detained U.S. dual nationals leave Iran and a similar number of Iranian prisoners held in the U.S. fly home, according to eight Iranian and other sources familiar with the negotiations who spoke to Reuters.

As a first step, Iran on Aug. 10 released four U.S. citizens from Tehran’s Evin prison into house arrest, where they joined a fifth, who was already under house arrest. Later that day U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the move the first step of a process that would lead to their return home.

They include businessmen Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also holds British nationality, the U.S. administration has said. The Tahbaz and Shargi families did not respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for the Namazi family declined to comment.

The identities of the fourth and fifth Americans, one of whom according to two sources is a woman, have not been disclosed. Reuters couldn’t establish which Iranian prisoners, in turn, would be swapped by the U.S.

At the centre of the negotiations that forged this deal between the superpower which Iran brands the “Great Satan” and the Islamic Republic which Washington calls a state sponsor of terrorism is the tiny but hugely rich state of Qatar.

Doha hosted at least eight rounds of talks involving Iranian and U.S. negotiators sitting in separate hotels speaking via shuttle diplomacy, a source briefed on the discussions said, with the earlier sessions focused mainly on the thorny nuclear issue and the later ones on the prisoner releases, Reuters reported.

Doha will implement a financial arrangement under which it will pay banking fees and monitor how Iran spends the unfrozen cash to ensure no money is spent on items under U.S. sanctions, and the prisoners will transit Qatar when they are swapped, according to three of the sources.

“Iran initially wanted direct access to the funds but in the end agreed to having access via Qatar,” said a senior diplomat. “Iran will purchase food and medicine and Qatar will pay directly.”

Reuters pieced together this account of previously unreported details about the extent of Qatari mediation of the secret talks, how the deal unfolded and the expediency that motivated both parties to clinch the prisoner swap deal. Reuters interviewed four Iranian officials, two U.S. sources, a senior Western diplomat, a Gulf government adviser and the person familiar with the negotiations.

All of the sources requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of a deal which hasn’t been fully implemented.

A State Department spokesperson said the U.S. was not ready to announce the exact timing of the prisoner release. The Department also declined to discuss the details of what the spokesperson termed “an ongoing and highly sensitive negotiation.”

The U.S. administration has not commented on the timing of the funds transfer. However, on Sept 5, South Korean foreign minister Park Jin said efforts were under way to transfer Iran’s funds.

“The U.S.-Iran relationship is not one characterized by trust. We judge Iran by its actions, nothing else,” the State Department spokesperson added.

Washington consented to the movement of Iranian funds from South Korea to restricted accounts held by financial institutions in Qatar, but no money is going to Iran directly, the spokesperson added.

Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment on the details of negotiations, Qatar’s role in the talks or the terms of the final agreement.

Iran’s foreign ministry and its U.N. mission did not respond to detailed questions regarding this story, read the report.

The sources’ account of the negotiation shows how the deal sidestepped the main U.S.-Iran dispute over Iran’s nuclear aims, culminating in a rare moment of cooperation between the long-time adversaries, at odds on a host of issues from Iran’s nuclear program to the U.S. military presence in the Gulf.

Ties between the U.S. and Iran have been at boiling point since Donald Trump quit a nuclear deal with Iran as U.S. president in 2018. Reaching another nuclear deal has gained little traction since then, as President Joe Biden prepares for the 2024 U.S. election.

The State Department spokesperson also said there had been no change in Washington’s overall approach to Iran, “which continues to be focused on deterrence, pressure and diplomacy.”

Once the funds are transferred, they will be held in restricted accounts in Qatar, and the U.S. will have oversight as to how and when these funds are used, the State Department spokesperson added.

The potential transfer has drawn Republican criticism that Biden, a Democrat, is in effect paying ransom for U.S. citizens. But Blinken told reporters on Aug 10 the deal does not mean that Iran would be getting any sanctions relief, explaining that Washington would continue to push back “resolutely against Iran’s destabilising activities in the region”.

The Qatari-led mediation gained momentum in June 2023, said the source briefed on the discussions, adding at least eight rounds of talks were held since March 2022, with earlier rounds devoted mainly to the nuclear issue and later ones to prisoners.

“They all realised that nuclear (negotiation) is a dead end and shifted focus to prisoners. Prisoners is more simple. It’s easy to get and you can build trust,” he said. “This is when things got serious again.”

The Iranian, diplomatic and regional sources said that once the money reaches Qatar from South Korea via Switzerland, Qatari officials will instruct Tehran and Washington to proceed with the releases under the terms of a document signed by both sides and Qatar in late July or early August. Reuters has not seen the document.

The transfer to banks in Qatar is expected to conclude as early as next week if all goes to plan, the source briefed on the talks said. Reuters was unable to identify the banks involved.

“American prisoners will fly to Qatar from Tehran and Iranian prisoners will fly from the U.S. to Qatar, and then be transferred to Iran,” the source briefed on the talks told Reuters.

According to two Iranian insiders, the source briefed on the negotiations and the senior Western diplomat, the talks’ most complex part was arranging a mechanism to ensure transparency in the money transfer and respect for U.S. sanctions. The $6 billion in Iranian assets – the proceeds of oil sales – were frozen under sweeping U.S. oil and financial sanctions against Iran. Then president Trump in 2018 reimposed the sanctions when he pulled Washington out of a deal under which Iran had restricted its nuclear program.

Issues discussed included how to ensure Iran only spent the money on humanitarian goods and securing guarantees from Qatar on its monitoring of the process.

“To salvage the negotiations from collapse, Qatar pledged to cover the banking fees for the funds’ transfer from Seoul to Switzerland, and subsequently to Qatari banks, while also taking on the responsibility of expense oversight,” an Iranian insider briefed about the talks told Reuters.

The central bank governors of Iran and Qatar met in Doha on June 14 to discuss the funds transfer, a second Iranian insider and the source briefed on the talks said.

According to Reuters the Central Bank of Iran and the Qatar central bank declined to comment.

The talks were led by U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley — now on unpaid leave because his security clearance is under review — and by U.S. Deputy Special Envoy Abram Paley and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, said one Iranian official, two sources briefed on the negotiations and the Western diplomat.

Mehdi Safari, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for economic affairs, joined the Iranian delegation at two meetings in Qatar for talks on the funds transfer, one senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters. Qatari Minister of State at the Foreign Ministry Mohammed Al-Khulaifi was the go-between mediator.

Malley declined to comment. Paley, Kani and Al Khulaifi could not be reached directly for comment.


Suicide blast in southwest Pakistan kills at least 52 people



(Last Updated On: September 29, 2023)

A suicide bombing in Pakistan killed at least 52 people and injured more than 50 on Friday at a religious gathering to mark the birthday of Prophet Mohammed in a restive province bordering Afghanistan, health officials and police said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the blasts which come amid a surge in attacks by militant groups in Pakistan, raising the stakes for security forces ahead of national elections scheduled for January next year.

Hours after the suicide blast in Balochistan province, another blast ripped through a mosque in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which also borders Afghanistan, officials said, killing at least two people.

The mosque’s roof collapsed in the blast, local broadcaster Geo News reported, adding that about 30 to 40 people were trapped under the rubble.

Pakistan has seen a resurgence of attacks by Islamist militants since last year when a ceasefire broke down between the government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella organisation of various hardline Sunni Islamist groups.

The TTP, which has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since its formation in 2007, denied that it had carried out Friday’s attack in Balochistan.

At least 58 people were wounded in the Balochistan blast, said Abdul Rasheed, a district health official, adding that the toll could rise as many people were in a serious condition.

Television footage of the attack’s aftermath showed hundreds of people helping the injured into ambulances.

“The bomber detonated himself near the vehicle of the Deputy Superintendent of Police,” Munir Ahmed, the deputy inspector general of police, told Reuters.

In July, more than 40 people were killed in a suicide bombing in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province at a religious political party’s gathering.

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Karabakh Armenians dissolve breakaway govt in capitulation to Azerbaijan



(Last Updated On: September 28, 2023)

Ethnic Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh said on Thursday they were dissolving the breakaway statelet they had defended for three decades, where more than half the population has fled since Azerbaijan launched a lightning offensive last week.

In a statement, they said their self-declared Republic of Artsakh would “cease to exist” by Jan. 1, in what amounted to a formal capitulation to Azerbaijan.

For Azerbaijan and its president, Ilham Aliyev, the outcome is a triumphant restoration of sovereignty over an area that is internationally recognised as part of its territory but whose ethnic Armenian majority won de facto independence in a war in the 1990s, Reuters reported.

For Armenians, it is a defeat and a national tragedy.

Some 70,500 people had crossed into Armenia by early Thursday afternoon, Russia’s RIA news agency reported, out of an estimated population of 120,000.

“Analysis of the situation shows that in the coming days there will be no Armenians left in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Interfax news agency quoted Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as saying. “This is an act of ethnic cleansing.”

Azerbaijan denies that accusation, saying it is not forcing people to leave and that it will peacefully reintegrate the Karabakh region and guarantee the civic rights of the ethnic Armenians.

Karabakh Armenians say they do not trust that promise, mindful of a long history of bloodshed between the two sides including two wars since the break-up of the Soviet Union. For days they have fled en masse down the snaking mountain road through Azerbaijan that connects Karabakh to Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s ambassador to London, Elin Suleymanov, told Reuters in an interview that Baku did not want a mass exodus from Karabakh and was not encouraging people to leave.

He said Azerbaijan had not yet had a chance to prove what he said was its sincere commitment to provide secure and better living conditions for those ethnic Armenians who choose to stay.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was closely monitoring the humanitarian situation in Karabakh and said Russian peacekeepers in the region were providing assistance to residents. It said Russian President Vladimir Putin had no plans to visit Armenia.

Western governments have also expressed alarm over the humanitarian crisis and demanded access for international observers to monitor Azerbaijan’s treatment of the local population.

Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said this week she had heard “very troubling reports of violence against civilians”.

Azerbaijan said Aliyev had told her at a meeting on Wednesday that the rights of ethnic Armenians would be protected by law, like those of other minorities.

“The Azerbaijani president noted that the civilian population had not been harmed during the anti-terrorist measures, and only illegal Armenian armed formations and military facilities had been targeted,” a statement said.

Aliyev’s office said on Thursday he was visiting Jabrayil, a city on the southern edge of Karabakh that was destroyed by Armenian forces in the 1990s, which Azerbaijan recaptured in 2020 and is now rebuilding.

While saying he had no quarrel with ordinary Karabakh Armenians, Aliyev last week described their leaders as a “criminal junta” that would be brought to justice.

A former head of Karabakh’s government, Ruben Vardanyan, was arrested on Wednesday as he tried to cross into Armenia. Azerbaijan’s state security service said on Thursday he was being charged with financing terrorism and with illegally crossing the Azerbaijani border last year.

David Babayan, an adviser to the Karabakh leadership, said in a statement he was voluntarily giving himself up to the Azerbaijani authorities.

Mass displacements have been a feature of the Karabakh conflict since it broke out in the late 1980s as the Soviet Union headed towards collapse.

Between 1988 and 1994 about 500,000 Azerbaijanis from Karabakh and the areas around it were expelled from their homes, while the conflict prompted 350,000 Armenians to leave Azerbaijan and 186,000 Azerbaijanis to leave Armenia, according to “Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War”, a 2003 book by Caucasus scholar and analyst Thomas de Waal.

Many of the Armenians escaping this week in heavily laden cars, trucks, buses and even tractors said they were hungry and fearful.

“This is one of the darkest pages of Armenian history,” said Father David, a 33-year-old Armenian priest who came to the border to provide spiritual support for those arriving. “The whole of Armenian history is full of hardships.”

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Powerful blast in Uzbek capital kills one, injures 162



(Last Updated On: September 28, 2023)

One person was killed and 162 injured by a powerful explosion on Thursday at a warehouse near Tashkent’s airport that sparked a fire and shattered windows in apartment blocks nearby, authorities in Uzbekistan said.

A teenage boy died after a window frame fell on him, the health ministry said in a statement, adding that 24 people had been hospitalised, but faced no threat to their lives, while 138 were treated for injuries, Reuters reported.

Flights were operating as normal at the international airport in the capital, its administration said.

In video and photographs on social media, flames soared into the night sky, with a huge cloud of smoke hanging above the warehouse, but the cause of the explosion was not immediately clear.

A special laboratory had been set up at the scene to investigate the blast, the emergencies ministry said.

“As a result of the quick actions of emergencies ministry employees, the area of the fire is being reduced,” it added on the Telegram messaging app.

“The situation is completely under control.”

A social media post from Uzbek outlet Daryo said 16 fire and rescue crews were sent to fight the fire at one of the warehouses in the city’s Sergeli district near the airport.

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