NEW YORK – Five American citizens held for years in Iran under what U.S. officials describe as brutal conditions were freed Monday and allowed to fly out of the country, the result of months of secret negotiations, a senior Biden administration official said.
In exchange, Iran will gain access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that has been frozen, and five Iranian citizens imprisoned in the U.S. will be released.
The former prisoners flew in a Qatari government airplane to Doha before continuing to Washington, D.C. Several senior Biden administration officials were on hand to greet them in the Qatari capital.
Deemed wrongfully detained by the U.S., they were moved from the notorious Evin prison in Tehran last month to house arrest as the first step in the complicated deal. Among the five was Siamek Namazi, 51, the longest held at eight years.
Others who were freed include Emad Shargi, 59, a businessman like Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist. The two others, at least one of whom is a woman, have declined to be publicly identified. Shargi and Tahbaz were arrested in 2018.
The three identified men are dual U.S. and Iranian citizens and were imprisoned on what Iran called security-related charges. Namazi’s father, Baquer, was also arrested by Iran in 2016 when he went to visit his son but was released in October on “humanitarian grounds,” Tehran officials said. He is 86 years old and in poor health.
All of the former prisoners were categorized by the U.S. government as “wrongfully detained,” which means a new division within the State Department worked on securing their freedom.
Once the Americans reached house arrest, the U.S. authorized the transfer of $6 billion, frozen as part of economic sanctions against Iran, from a South Korean bank where the money was being held to a “supervised” bank account in Qatar. Iran will be allowed to use the money only for humanitarian needs, U.S. officials said. The transactions will be monitored, and if Tehran uses the money for terrorism or military purposes, the U.S. will re-freeze funds, the officials said.
The deal is controversial, especially among Republican critics of the Biden administration, who argue that the arrangement will give the Islamic Republic, as well as other governments, incentive to capture Americans and hold them hostage for ransom.
Some critics have also falsely accused the Biden administration of paying off Iran to secure the freedom of the Americans. In fact, the funds were earned by Iran through oil sales several years ago.
While advocating for the freedom of the Americans, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said he was concerned that facilitating the transfer of the money to Iran, “the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism,” would encourage future hostage-taking.
“The administration is demonstrating weakness that only further endangers Americans and freedom-loving people around the world,” McCaul said in a statement.
Administration officials acknowledge the deal has involved what they called tough choices.
“When it comes to getting Americans out of jail and back home (who have been) unjustly detained anywhere in the world, I’m happy to take any criticism that comes my way,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said last week. “We are willing to make hard decisions to make that happen.”
The money transfer has been complex. South Korea insisted it be executed in tranches so as not to affect its own economy. Blinken earlier this month signed waivers to reassure international banks they could handle the money without risk of incurring sanctions or penalties.
Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, has nevertheless raised doubts about how his country will use the money, despite the stated U.S.-imposed restrictions.
“This money belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money,” Raisi said in an interview with NBC. He spoke through an interpreter.
Negotiations over the prisoners have remained separate from a raft of still-contentious issues between Washington and Tehran, such as Iran supplying Russia with drones used in the war on Ukraine and its support for militant groups throughout the Middle East.
The Biden administration has continued imposing sanctions on Iran and on individual officials, including a batch last week. Many target those considered responsible for human rights abuses, including the death of Mahsa Jina Amini, a young Iranian-Kurdish woman who died in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police a year ago. She was arrested for failing to wear her headscarf properly, and her death triggered widespread protests that the Iranian government violently repressed.
“We’ll continue to sanction Iranian behavior, whether it is flouting basic norms of human rights contained in the Universal Declaration (of Human Rights) or … the work that Iran is doing to provide weapons to Russia to kill Ukrainian civilians, and we’ll have more designations on that in the coming days,” White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said Friday.
Talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program have been stalled since the Trump administration pulled out of an international agreement that limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear production.
Amid the release of the American citizens from Iran, several others are still being held abroad, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia in late March on espionage charges, and Paul Whelan, a former Marine and corporate security executive detained in Russia in 2018, also on spy charges. Both men have denied the allegations.
American basketball star Brittney Griner, arrested by Russia in 2022 for possession of vape cartridges containing hash oil, was released late last year in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian convicted arms dealer.
Despite the cheer over the release of Iran’s prisoners, critics continued to pummel the Biden administration for making concessions to the country, with which Washington has not had diplomatic relations for decades.
Former vice president and current GOP presidential candidate Mike Pence said the $6 billion amounted to a “ransom.”
But State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said that attitude was unrealistic.
“Iran is not going to release these American citizens out of the goodness of their heart,” he said before Monday’s release. “That is not real life. … That was never going to happen.”