Hours after Washington announced having reached a long-stalled prisoner swap deal with Tehran, the Iranian Foreign Ministry came out with its own confirmation — one which bore striking differences.
The swap deal is expected to see the release of five US nationals held in Iran in exchange for an unspecified number of Iranians jailed in the United States. It will also see the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets from South Korean banks.
US officials have said the funds will be transferred to a Qatari bank account, but that Iran will be allowed to use them only for "humanitarian purposes."
However, in a statement on its official website late Thursday, Iran's Foreign Ministry declared that under the deal, Tehran will have full authority over how it will use the funds. "These financial resources will be applied to varying demands of the country, and a decision on how to spend them rests with the relevant [Iranian] institutions," the statement read.
It also claimed that the unblocking process of the funds had already started, reasserting that the amount had been withheld "illegally" under US sanctions in the first place. The state-affiliated Fars news agency reported that the funds had even been converted from Korean won into euros, set to be deposited to the Qatari bank.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry declared in a short statement on Friday that it had no information about reports on the swap deal, while noting that "our government has been closely consulting with involved countries," expressing hope that the issue will be resolved "amicably."
Iran said it had been provided with the "required guarantees" for the US compliance with the swap agreement, but it did not specify if a third party had ensured such guarantees. Protracted for over two years, US-Iran prisoner swap negotiations have involved Oman and Qatar, among other intermediaries, at varying stages.
It remained immediately unclear how many Iranians will be released from US prisons. The Iranian side also fell short of giving numbers but claimed that there were "innocent" Iranians who had been detained in the United States under "the arbitrary charge of sanctions circumvention."
As confirmed by both sides, the five US nationals are currently under house arrest in Iran after they were freed from the notorious Evin Prison. While two remain unnamed, the other three are confirmed to be dual nationals Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharqi and Morad Tahbaz.
Neither side has announced a precise timeline for the eventual departure of the five back home. The deputy chief of the Iranian presidential office, Mohammad Jamshidi, suggested in a tweet that none of those prisoners will be allowed to leave unless the funds are entirely unfrozen.
Despite the ongoing confusion, the swap deal was cautiously welcome in Iran's troubled foreign exchange market. The national currency, the rial, which has been plummeting to all-time lows in the past two years, regained some 2% of its lost value hours after the swap was confirmed and raised hopes for some injection into Iran's shrinking foreign currency reserves.
To many Iranian hard-liners and their media outlets, the swap deal proved a moment of "victory" and a sign of the Islamic Republic's "firmness and authority," as well as a message to the exiled opposition that their regime change ambitions were crushed by the deal.
Iran's decadeslong policy of holding American and other Western nationals over "espionage" has never ceased to be a contentious issue. Condemning it as "hostage taking," rights groups maintain that Tehran is increasingly pursuing the tactic for "ransom" and leverage, among other concessions from its adversaries.