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Blinken defends Iran prisoner swap at meeting with Gulf counterparts

The US secretary of state also touted the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, seen as competition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, ahead of the discussion with Gulf Cooperation Council member states.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends breakfast with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on September 18, 2023 in New York.

NEW YORK — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Oman and Qatar for their help in securing the release of five Americans from Iran following a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on Monday, while also defending the deal.

Blinken met with the foreign ministers of GCC member states. The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. The meeting occurred on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

Blinken met with his GCC counterparts as five Americans were en route to Doha, the capital of Qatar, as part of a prisoner swap with Iran. The Americans were scheduled to fly to the United States following the stop in Doha.

In remarks to reporters afterward, Blinken said the discussion did not focus on the deal.

“In fact, when we — when we met with our GCC colleagues, our fellow Americans had not yet arrived in Doha, so we didn’t want to get ahead of that process,” said Blinken.

The secretary did thank Oman and Qatar for their roles in releasing the Americans, saying the two countries “played an absolutely vital role.”

The deal was made in exchange for granting clemency to five Iranians in the United States, as well as the release of $6 billion in Iranian funds that were held up in South Korea. The funds stemmed from Iranian oil sales to South Korea but were blocked under US sanctions. The money has been transferred to Qatari bank accounts, where US officials say Iran can use them for humanitarian purposes under US supervision.

In addition to Qatar’s role, Oman facilitated indirect talks between the United States and Iran in May.

The deal has been heavily criticized by Republicans in Congress, who allege that the release of the $6 billion amounts to a ransom payment that will incentivize Iran to further imprison US citizens on bogus charges.

Blinken defended this aspect of the deal following the GCC meeting, saying, “We have absolute confidence in the process and the system that’s been set up.” He also said that he believes the GCC is supportive of the United States' efforts to retrieve its citizens from Iran.

“I think everyone is supportive of that effort,” he said, adding that he discussed the issue with his Gulf counterparts in recent months.

Ahead of the meeting, Blinken praised the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). The United States signed a memorandum for the multimode transport corridor with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and European states at the G20 in New Delhi earlier this month. The project is widely considered a counter to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Blinken said the United States and the GCC have “continued working to build a more stable, secure and integrated region, benefiting people in the Gulf but also benefiting people around the world,” in reference to the corridor, according to a press release from the State Department.

The diplomat also said the United States and the GCC are “cooperating to deter Tehran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, including the threat posed by its nuclear program,” as well as “working to uphold freedom of navigation” in the Strait of Hormuz.

Gulf states have long voiced concern about Iran’s support for proxy militias in the Middle East, including the Houthi rebels in Yemen, as well as the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

The “freedom of navigation” comment is a reference to several recent maritime incidents involving Iran in the Persian Gulf. Most recently, Iran seized two foreign oil tankers in the strategic waterway.

The State Department did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for more information on the GCC meeting.

Know more: Blinken also met on Monday with the head of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council, Rashad al-Alimi. The two discussed efforts to end the conflict in Yemen, according to a readout from the State Department.

Yemen’s internationally recognized government, led by the council, reached a cease-fire agreement with the Houthi rebels in April of last year. The cease-fire technically expired last October but has largely held up since then. The Yemeni government is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.

A Houthi delegation flew to Saudi Arabia last week for peace talks with the kingdom.

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