President Joe Biden is considering releasing $1 billion in frozen Iranian funds according to three people briefed on Biden administration deliberations, who spoke to CNN on Thursday.
The officials who spoke with CNN said the plan to release the frozen Iranian funds could serve as a goodwill gesture to the Iranian government to push forward negotiations surrounding Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal and the U.S. re-entering the agreement. Indirect negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal have been going on for more than a month in Vienna, Austria.
Rather than unilaterally releasing the funds to Iran, the officials said they may instead be placed into a humanitarian relief fund for the country. Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement was established last year as a way to allow humanitarian aid like food and medicine to be sent to Iran without violating U.S. sanctions.
Another goodwill gesture to Iran that is being considered is for the U.S. to authorize the International Monetary Fund to approve a request from Iran for $5 billion in COVID-19 relief.
“If it demonstrates the kind of good faith that can cause reciprocal good faith from the Iranian side, then it is potentially a good step forward,” said Thomas Countryman, who served as the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017 under President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden.
Some lawmakers privy to the Iran negotiations are opposing the proposal to free up frozen Iranian funds.
CNN reported a Republican congressional staffer said some lawmakers see releasing Iran’s funds as a concession to the Iranian government and would take away U.S. leverage at the negotiating table.
While working to reenter the U.S. into the agreement, which then-President Donald Trump withdrew from in May of 2018, U.S. officials are also concerned about Iranian violations of the agreement. Iran has already greatly exceeded uranium stockpiling and enrichment limits set forth in the 2015 agreement. Some lawmakers have also pushed the Biden administration to use negotiations to win other concessions from Iran, such as curbs to its missile program and its sponsorship of terrorist activities throughout the Middle East.
“I fear returning to the JCPOA without concrete efforts to address Iran’s other dangerous and destabilizing activity would be insufficient,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said in January.
CNN reported the idea to release the Iranian funds is being promoted by Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy to Iran. Sources for CNN said Malley has been pushing for the funds to be released for months, but that the White House is reluctant to move forward with the idea without first making progress on reentering the 2015 nuclear agreement.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price told CNN, “Reporting suggesting we are weighing the release of Iranian funds as a unilateral gesture to Tehran is not true, which we made clear prior to publication. As we have said, any substantial move by the U.S. would have to be part of a process in which both sides take actions.”
The sources for CNN said the idea of unfreezing the Iranian funds also comes as negotiators are losing hope of reaching a deal before the June Iranian elections, after which the U.S. could be negotiating with an entirely different Iranian administration. An agreement could be even further off if Iran’s political hardliners gain power.