Iran said Monday advances had been made in talks with South Korea over the release of funds frozen by banks due to United States third-party sanctions.

Foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani spoke a day after the US denied any frozen resources had been released or that a prisoner swap had been agreed with Washington. Iranian state media had suggested that an agreement had been reached on an exchange – Iranian-Americans held in Tehran for Iranians jailed in the US over sanctions violations – and that Washington would waive punitive action against South Korean banks repatriating $7 billion in Iranian assets.

Hopes for a prisoner swap had been raised after Stephane Dujarric, a United Nations spokesman, said Saturday that Iran would allow Bagher Namazi, 85, to leave the country for medical treatment and would release his son Siamak from detention. Siamak Namazi’s lawyer confirmed his client’s furlough to Reuters news agency. Siamak Namazi has been in prison since 2015 for “collaborating with hostile governments,” while his father was detained in 2016 after going to Iran to secure his son’s release.

But Kanaani said Monday that decisions over the Namazis were purely ‘humanitarian.’ While denying any arrangement over the funds in Korea, the US spokesman confirmed Sunday that Washington was continuing “indirect discussions on possible humanitarian arrangements to facilitate the urgent release of the remaining US citizens.” The spokesman said there was “nothing further to announce at this time.”

‘Information therapy’ to boost currency?

In Tehran, Shargh daily was skeptical in an analysis published Monday. The reformist newspaper noted that earlier Iranian claims over the imminent release of funds in South Korea, going back to the last year in office of President Hassan Rouhani, were seen by “many experts and economists” as ‘information therapy’ to bolster the flagging rial in currency markets.

Citing the generally conservative Fars news agency to support its contention, Shargh suggested the latest news had helped rally the currency from 340,000 to 320,000 against the US dollar.

Shargh went on to argue that Iran’s decision over the Namazis might also be intended to “paint a better picture [internationally] in the field of human rights” given “the current negative atmosphere against Iran due to the death of Mehsa Amini,” the women who died September 16 after being detained by morality police.

Shargh also noted Saudi Arabia’s release Sunday of Khalil Dardman, an Iranian detained on pilgrimage, which it said might lead to a “positive regional atmosphere centered on the restoration of relations.” Tehran and Riyadh have been in Iraq-brokered talks since April 2021 over reopening embassies six years after relations were severed following the Saudis executing leading Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Qatar’s ‘main mission’

The newspaper argued that the reported role of Qatar in mediating over the Namazis reflected Doha’s efforts over “its main mission, which is the revival of the JCPOA, by solving marginal disputes…”

Both the US and Iran publicly argue that a possible prisoner exchange is unrelated to efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Both say any talks take place in parallel. But Shargh welcomed the Namazi move as at least preventing “the current situation of negotiations from worsening” given the US had put “the brakes on negotiations with Iran on the eve of the Knesset elections [in Israel, November 1]…as well as the [US November 8] mid-term elections of the Congress.”

Apparently reflecting Tehran’s desire to keep JCPOA talks alive, the official news agency IRNA ran a report Sunday that Iran and the US had exchanged messages, mediated by Qatar, during the recent United Nations General Assembly in New York.

But even with the Namazis’ release, Iran’s arrest of nine foreigners allegedly involved in current unrest is a further complication. Alberto Piperno, father of Alessia Piperno, an Italian woman, said Sunday he had received a telephone call from his daughter in jail. Alberto posted on social media that Alessia, a blogger, was a “solitary traveler” who had been in Iran two months.

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