It is not clear whether the release of the funds would occur unilaterally, but one line of thought is that it could serve as a useful goodwill gesture to Tehran, according to three people briefed on the internal deliberations, as the talks in Vienna enter their second month with no concrete signs yet of a breakthrough. The Iranians continue to demand sanctions relief in return for compliance with the nuclear deal.
The funds would not be provided in cash; instead, they’d be allocated to a Swiss channel, known as the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement, which was set up last year to allow humanitarian aid like food and medicine to be sent to Iran without violating US sanctions.
But the plan is facing opposition from Iran hawks in Congress who are privy to the discussions, said one Republican congressional staffer. The staffer said that some on Capitol Hill view the idea of unfreezing any of Iran’s money as a concession that would diminish the US’ leverage.
But some experts see the move as something that could create momentum in the talks.
“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 US assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation from 2011 to 2017.
A congressional Democratic aide separately confirmed that the US negotiating team had recently consulted with congressional staff about humanitarian relief and how that might work, including unfreezing funds to place in the Swiss channel. A US official acknowledged that the plan has been under consideration, but said the chief goal right now among US negotiators is a mutual return to the nuclear deal.
Experts said another option would be for the US to allow the International Monetary Fund to approve a request from Iran for $5 billion to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. The Trump administration had sought to block that loan, arguing Iran could divert the funds to boost its economy.
“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,” State Department Spokesman Ned Price said. “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.”
CNN has reached out to the National Security Council for comment.
The debate underscores the sensitivity of the negotiations and has also laid bare a disagreement between the White House and its chief envoy for the talks, Rob Malley, as the new administration tries to balance the negotiations with political considerations at home.
Malley has been pushing for several months for the funds to be unfrozen and used for humanitarian purposes, sa
US weighs unfreezing $1 billion in Iranian funds
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