White House defends planned US-Iran prisoner swap amid fierce GOP criticism

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(WASHINGTON) — The White House on Wednesday vigorously defended the administration’s deal with Iran to free five detained Americans in exchange for unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue and the release of five Iranian citizens in U.S. custody.

The $6 billion for humanitarian aid is coming from a restricted account in South Korea, where it was effectively frozen when the U.S. reinstated sanctions against Tehran after former President Donald Trump left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program and will be transferred to Qatar with restrictions on how Iran can spend the funds.

National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby insisted during a press briefing Wednesday that “Iran will be getting no sanctions relief,” despite Republicans calling it a ransom payment.

“It’s Iranian money that had been established in these accounts to allow some trade from foreign countries on things like Iranian oil. … It’s not a blank check. They don’t get to spend it anyway they want. It’s not $6 billion all at once. They will have to make a request for withdrawals for humanitarian purposes only,” he said, adding that there will be “sufficient oversight to make sure that the request is valid.”

Kirby was cautious not to reveal much about the detained Iranians that are part of the deal, saying this is still an ongoing process, but in general, the crimes were “largely in the realm of sanctions evasions.”

The detained U.S. citizens include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, as well as two others who asked that their identity not be made public. Two Iranians, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, who was indicted by the Department of Justice in 2021 on counts that included conspiracy, violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) and money laundering, and Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, who was charged by DOJ in 2021 with “acting and conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA),” are on the list for a possible swap.

Pressed on why the $6 billion needed to be released in addition to the five Iranian prisoners, Kirby said, “This is the deal we were able to strike to secure the release of five Americans.”

“We’re comfortable in the parameters of this deal. I get – I’ve heard the critics that somehow they’re getting the better end of it. Ask the families of those five American’s who’s getting the better end of it and I think you’d get a different answer,” he said.

When asked about Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s claim that the money is “fungible,” Kirby said, “He’s wrong. He’s just flat out wrong.”

Kirby said the funds in this agreement are “not a payment of any kind” and “not ransom” to secure the release of the Americans.

But Republicans blasting the planned swap earlier this week said the deal was a “ransom” and “sanctions relief.”

“As Chairman of the [Republican Study Committee], we will use all legislative options to reverse this agreement and prevent further ransom payments and sanctions relief to Iran,” Rep. Kevin Hern tweeted Tuesday.

The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, said on Monday that the Biden administration is “demonstrating weakness.”

“The Americans held by Iran are innocent hostages who must be released immediately and unconditionally. However, I remain deeply concerned that the administration’s decision to waive sanctions to facilitate the transfer of $6 billion in funds for Iran, the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking,” McCaul said in a statement.

ABC News’ Desiree Adib contributed to this report.

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