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Iran releases prisoners in swap deal with US

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Iran releases prisoners in swap deal with US

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The US and Iran are set to complete an exchange of prisoners after months of negotiations, a breakthrough that Washington hopes will open the door to a de-escalation of tensions between the arch-foes.

In a carefully sequenced process, five American-Iranian dual nationals, as well as two relatives, landed in Qatar on Monday after being released by the Islamic republic, said a person briefed on the matter. The US is also set to free five Iranians from American prisons. 

The exchange is taking place after $6bn in Iran’s oil revenue, which had been frozen in South Korea, was transferred to bank accounts in Qatar, where the funds will be monitored to ensure they are used appropriately.

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Qatari officials had confirmed to both parties that the $6bn has been transferred from South Korea, via Switzerland, to bank accounts in Qatar, the person briefed on the process told the Financial Times.

The release of the prisoners comes after months of indirect talks between the US and Iran, facilitated by Qatar and Oman. The hope is that it will help build a degree of trust that creates conditions for further discussions on Iran’s muscular nuclear programme.

The swap “does remove an obstacle” to further diplomacy on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues, said a senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration. “We do not close the door entirely to diplomacy,” the official said. “If we see an opportunity, we will explore it.”

The US and Iran have also been discussing how to de-escalate tensions and contain the nuclear issue even as Tehran has continued to enrich uranium. This includes Iran agreeing not to target Americans and to cap its uranium enrichment at 60 per cent purity, a level below weapons grade.

Iran, in return, expects Washington to refrain from imposing additional sanctions that further strangle the economy.

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The US has also been pushing Tehran to stop selling drones and spare parts to Moscow, which Russian forces have used in the war in Ukraine, an Iranian official previously told the FT. Tehran denies exporting weapons to Russia to use in the war, and no agreement has yet been reached, said people briefed on the talks.

Still, some believe the prisoner exchange can at least help contain a nuclear crisis and ease the risks of renewed Middle East conflict.

“The release of Iranian hostages was a key first step for the Biden administration to manage and contain a cascade of crises relating to Iran’s advancing and unconstrained nuclear programme in advance of the US election year,” said Sanam Vakil, Middle East director at Chatham House. “Moreover Biden can show that he did live up to his promise of bringing unjustly detained American citizens home.”

The crisis has been simmering dangerously since then US president Donald Trump unilaterally abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord Tehran signed with world powers and imposed hundreds of sanctions on Iran which has strangled the republic’s economy.

Diplomatic efforts to revive the 2015 deal after the Biden administration took office have floundered and few believe the accord can be saved given the scale of Iran’s nuclear advances.

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US officials say Iran has the capacity to produce enough fissile material required to develop a nuclear weapon in about two weeks.

Analysts say the best hope for the Biden administration is to contain the crisis, and seek to return to serious nuclear negotiations if the US president secures a second term. “The larger issue of the Biden administration’s Iran policy beyond campaign promises and crisis management remains unclear,” Vakil said.

For Iran, the unfreezing of the $6bn will provide some vital hard currency as the country grapples with an economic malaise, with inflation soaring above 40 per cent.

The US also wants Iran to improve its co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors the republic’s nuclear activity.

But the signals out of Tehran have been mixed, with signs that it has slowed the pace at which it is enriching uranium close to weapons grade, while continuing to frustrate the IAEA in other areas.

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The nuclear watchdog last week condemned Iran for barring IAEA inspectors from taking part in its monitoring programme.

The Iranian-American dual nationals to released from Iran include Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi and two others who did not wish to be identified.

Namazi is an American-Iranian businessman who was arrested about eight years ago and sentenced to 10 years in jail on allegations of collaborating with the US against the Islamic republic. Tahbaz is a businessman and environmental activist who holds Iranian, US and British nationalities. Shargi is an Iranian-American businessman. Both were arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in jail on similar charges of collaborating with the US.

The identities of the Iranians to be released from US prisons have not been released. Nasser Kanaani, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, said two of the Iranians held in the US would return to the Islamic republic, while another would go to a third country, and two would remain in the US.

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System outage hits house sales and payments across UK and Europe

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System outage hits house sales and payments across UK and Europe

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House purchases and big UK and European transactions were disrupted on Thursday after an outage at the Swift international cross border payments system that lasted for several hours.

The Bank of England said a “global payments issue” affecting the central bank’s Chaps service, which is used in the UK for big wholesale transactions as well as retail ones such as house purchases, had delayed “some high value and time sensitive payments”.

The BoE later said payments via Chaps had resumed. The European Central Bank also said its settlements system had been affected by the Swift outage.

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The outage caused brief chaos in the UK’s housing market, which is reliant on the Chaps service for completions.

Estate agent Foxtons said two law firms it works with had reported delays of at least four hours for funds to be transferred.

Swift, which facilitates cross-border payments between banks, said in a statement on Thursday that it experienced an “operational incident delaying the processing of services”, adding this was not caused by a cyber attack.

Swift said it “takes any operational incident extremely seriously, is conducting a full investigation and apologises for the disruption caused”.

The BoE initially flagged the Chaps service problem on Thursday afternoon, saying it was “working closely with a third-party supplier, industry and other authorities to resolve the issue as promptly as possible”.

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The BoE later said: “We are pleased to confirm that the third-party supplier has restored service following their earlier issues, and Chaps payments are settling as normal.

“We expect that all payments received by the bank today will be settled by the end of the day.”

The ECB said it had delayed by one hour the closing of its settlements system because of an “issue impacting Swift”.

With fewer Eurozone banks reliant on the Swift system compared to UK financial institutions, its problem caused less disruption for the ECB than the BoE, according to one person briefed on the matter, who said the issue was having an impact around the world.

The Chaps service is an automated payments clearing system the BoE has managed since 2017. Its 35 direct participating banks are supervised by the Payments Systems Regulator.

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Payments via Chaps only make up about 0.5 per cent of total transaction volumes in the UK. But their total value accounts for about 92 per cent of sterling payments.

Several thousands of financial institutions make Chaps payments. Last year, a record 51mn payments were processed on the service, which handled £363bn worth of transactions daily in June on average.

Chaps was hit by a computer crash in August last year resulting in thousands of house purchases being delayed.

Additional reporting by Joshua Franklin in New York

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Biden under intense pressure from Democrats to drop out of election against Trump

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Biden under intense pressure from Democrats to drop out of election against Trump

U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on April 15, 2024.

Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

As President Joe Biden isolated at his beach house in Rehoboth, Delaware, on Thursday after testing positive for Covid, he faced renewed pressure from leading Democrats to drop out of the 2024 election contest against former President Donald Trump.

Biden, who for weeks has flatly rejected calls to step aside and allow another nominee to take his place, is now said to be more open to listening to top Democrats about the risk of him remaining in the race. He has also reportedly asked advisers in recent days whether they believe his vice president, Kamala Harris, could beat Trump in November.

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“We’re close to the end,” a person close to Biden told NBC News.

The pressure on the 81-year-old Biden stems from concerns that after his June 27 debate, if he remains the nominee he will not only cost Democrats the White House, but also cost the party its majority in the Senate and doom its chances of retaking the House.

Former President Barack Obama has privately expressed concerns to Democrats about the viability of Biden’s candidacy, both the Associated Press and The Washington Post reported.

Biden served two terms as Obama’s vice president, and the 44th president still has unrivaled influence within the Democratic party.

The two Democratic leaders in Congress — Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both of New York — have told Biden in recent days that his presence on the party ticket could cost them majorities in both chambers of Congress.

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Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo., told the Reuters news service late Wednesday that Biden is “working towards” a decision that will “put the country first.” Hickenlooper did not explicitly call on Biden to drop out, saying that was “his decision to make.”

“But certainly there’s more and more indications that that would be in the best interests of the country, I think,” the senator said.

Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Democratic nominee for one of the state’s two Senate seats, openly called for Biden to drop out of the race Wednesday.

Schiff and Hickenlooper joined about 20 other Democrats in Congress who have made similar public calls.

Schiff is close to Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic former House speaker. CNN reported Thursday morning that Pelosi told Biden recently that he cannot beat Trump and that he could doom Democratic chances of winning a House majority if he insists on remaining in the race.

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Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who to date has fully supported Biden’s plan to stay in the race, told NBC News on Thursday he had heard “growing concerns” from voters in his state this week.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people in our state that have concerns ever since the debate,” Casey said. “But I think my position has been very clear, and I think I think the president will do what he’s always done, which is put the best interests of the country first.”

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The Biden campaign’s public response to growing concerns has not changed, and top staffers remain dead-set against the president dropping out.

“Our campaign is not working through any scenarios where President Biden is not the top of the ticket,” Quentin Fulks, principal deputy campaign manager told reporters in Milwaukee on Thursday.

“He is and will be the Democratic nominee,” said Fulks.

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Later Thursday, a source close to Biden pushed back at the top Democrats pressuring for the president to bow out.

“Can we all just remember for a minute that these same people who are trying to push Joe Biden out are the same people who literally gave us all Donald Trump?” the source told NBC News.

“In 2015, Obama, Pelosi, Schumer pushed Biden aside in favor of Hillary; they were wrong then and they are wrong now,” the source said.

That source also noted how polls in 2016 showed the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee Hillary Clinton leading Trump by as much as 9 percentage points.

“How did all this work out for everyone in 2016?” the source said, referring to Trump’s victory that year.

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“Perhaps we should learn a few lessons from 2016; one of them is polls are BS, just ask Sec. Clinton. And two, maybe, just maybe, Joe Biden is more in touch with actual Americans than Obama-Pelosi-Schumer?” the source added.

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Video: J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

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Video: J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

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J.D. Vance Accepts Vice-Presidential Nomination

Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that served as both an introduction to party delegates and a blueprint for his campaign with Donald J. Trump.

“Mr. Chairman, I stand here humbled and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to say I officially accept your nomination to be vice president of the United States of America.” Crowd: “J.D., J.D., J.D.”

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