Five Americans were released by Iran as part of a prisoner swap that also released $6 billion in Iranian assets

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People walk past a government-organized, anti-American mural on the wall of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran, on August 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)


Five prisoners sought by the United States as part of an exchange with Iran were released and sent home on Monday. This is part of an agreement that called for the unfreezing of nearly $6 billion in Iranian assets.

Despite the deal, tensions will almost certainly remain high between the United States and Iran, which are embroiled in various disputes including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.

The planned exchange came amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of U.S. troops boarding and guarding merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.

“Today, five innocent Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar.

After the plane came to a stop, three of the prisoners walked down the ramp and were greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Timmy Davis. The former prisoners hugged the ambassador and others.

The three – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz – then wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders and walked to a building at the airport.

In a statement issued on his behalf after landing, Namazi said: “I would not be free today if you all did not allow the world to forget me.”

“Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream out from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison,” Namazi said.

In addition to the five Americans released, two U.S. family members flew from Tehran, according to a senior Biden administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity during the exchange.

Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the exchange would take place on Monday after nearly $6 billion in once-frozen Iranian assets reached Qatar.

“Fortunately, Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea have been released, and God willing, today the assets will begin to be fully controlled by the government and the country,” Kanaani said.

“Speaking of prisoner exchange, it will take place today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from prisons in the United States,” he added. “Five detained citizens who were in Iran will be handed over to the US side.”

He said two of the Iranian prisoners would remain in the United States. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners had arrived in Doha for exchange.

Mohammad Reza Farzin, the head of Iran’s central bank, later confirmed on state television the receipt of over 5.5 billion euros – $5.9 billion – in accounts in Qatar. Months ago, Iran expected to receive up to $7 billion.

The planned exchange comes ahead of the meeting of world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week in New York, where Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.

The deal has already exposed U.S. President Joe Biden to fresh criticism from Republicans and others who say the administration is helping to boost Iran’s economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to American troops and allies represents the Middle East. This could also have an impact on his re-election campaign.

In his statement, Biden urged Americans not to travel to Iran and called for more information about what happened to Bob Levinson, an American who went missing years ago. Biden also announced sanctions against former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.

The prisoners released Monday were: Namazi, who was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist, sentenced to 10 years in prison; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year prison sentence. All of their allegations have been heavily criticized by their families, activists and the US government.

U.S. officials declined to identify the fourth and fifth prisoners.

The five prisoners Iran says it is seeking are being held primarily for allegedly trying to export banned materials to Iran, such as dual-use electronics that can be used by a military.

According to Nour News, the two were in Doha: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian who was sentenced to 63 months in prison in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons and other military equipment, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani , an Iranian man was indicted in 2021 for allegedly illegally exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.

The cash was money that South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the U.S. imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.

The US claims that once the money arrives in Qatar, it is held in blocked accounts and can only be used for humanitarian goods such as medicine and food. These transactions are currently permitted under American sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its advancing nuclear program.

Iranian officials have largely agreed with that explanation, although some hardliners have insisted, without providing evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran can use the money.

There is a long history of prisoner exchanges in Iran and the United States, dating back to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy and the hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution. Their most recent major exchange came in 2016, when Iran struck a deal with world powers to curb its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners – including those with dual nationality – as bargaining chips, a claim Tehran rejects.

Negotiations over a major prisoner swap stalled after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal in 2018. Beginning the following year, a series of attacks and ship seizures attributed to Iran increased tensions.

The Iranian nuclear program is now reaching weapons level more than ever. While the head of the United Nations nuclear regulator has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “multiple” bombs, it would likely take months more to build a weapon and possibly miniaturize it to use it to build into a missile – if Iran decides to pursue one.

Iran insists that its nuclear program is peaceful, and the U.S. intelligence community maintains its assessment that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear bomb.

Iran has taken steps in recent months to resolve some issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But advances in its program have raised fears of a wider regional conflagration as Israel, itself a nuclear power, has said it would not allow Tehran to develop the bomb. Israel bombed both Iraq and Syria to stop their nuclear programs, adding to the threat. It is also suspected of carrying out a series of assassinations against Iranian nuclear scientists.

Iran also supplies Russia with bomb-carrying drones that Moscow uses to attack targets in Ukraine as part of its war against Kiev, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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