WASHINGTON– Americans detained for years in Iran returned home Tuesday after being released in a politically risky deal that saw President Joe Biden agree to the release of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
The prisoners landed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to applause and cheers heard before dawn. Siamak Namazi, the first to get off the jet, stopped for a moment, closed his eyes and took a deep breath before leaving the plane. Relatives, some holding small American flags, hugged them as they tearfully embraced each other and exchanged greetings in English and Farsi, Iran’s main language.
Successful negotiations for Americans’ freedom earned Biden plenty of thanks from their families, but also heat from his Republican presidential rivals and other opponents of the monetary deal with one of the main adversaries of the United States.
“Today, five innocent Americans imprisoned in Iran finally return home,” the Democratic president said in a statement Monday as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, suggested the exchange could be “a step in the direction of humanitarian action between us and America.”
“It can definitely help build trust,” Raïssi told reporters.
However, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the United States and Iran, which are locked in disputes over Tehran’s nuclear program and other issues. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it is now enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.
The release of the prisoners came amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of U.S. troops boarding and guarding commercial shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of all shipping passes. oil shipments.
After the plane slowed to a stop in Doha, three of the prisoners – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz – emerged.
They hugged the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis, and others. The three then threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and headed towards the airport.
In a statement issued on his behalf, Namazi said: “I would not be free today if you all had not allowed 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 summoned the strength to scream behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison,” a- he declared.
The United States did not immediately identify the two other released Americans. All were released in exchange for five Iranians held by the United States and a deal on frozen Iranian assets owed to South Korea. The Biden administration has said the five released Iranians pose no threat to U.S. national security.
Two family members of the imprisoned Americans, Effie Namazi and Vida Tahbaz, who were subject to a travel ban to Iran, were also on the plane.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranian prisoners would remain in the United States. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website considered close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners were in Doha for the exchange.
Nour News identified the two men in Doha as: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced by the United States to 63 months in prison in 2021 for obtaining material that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare weapons, weapons nuclear weapons and other military equipment, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian indicted in 2021 for allegedly illegally exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.
The $5.9 billion in cash paid to Iran represents money South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the U.S. imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The United States maintains that once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts and intended only to purchase humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food. These transactions are currently permitted under US sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic over its advanced nuclear program.
Iranian government officials largely agree, although some hard-liners have insisted, without evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.
The deal has already exposed Biden to fresh criticism from Republicans and others who say the administration is helping boost Iran’s economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to U.S. troops and their allies in the Middle East. This could have implications in his re-election campaign.
Former President Donald Trump, currently the leading Republican challenger in this race, called the deal “absolutely ridiculous” on the social media site Truth Social. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of “rewarding and encouraging bad behavior from Tehran.”
Biden had what the White House described as an emotional phone call with the families of released Americans following their release.
In his statement, Biden asked for more information about what happened to Bob Levinson, an American who went missing years ago. The Biden administration also announced new sanctions against former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.
The U.S. government, prisoners’ families and activists have denounced the charges against the five Americans as baseless.
The Americans included Namazi, who was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage; Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years in prison; and Tahbaz, a British-American environmental activist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In a statement, Sharghi’s sister Neda said she “can’t wait to hug my brother and never let him go.”
“He’s my brother, not an abstract policy,” she added. “We are talking about human lives. There is nothing partisan about saving the lives of innocent Americans and today should be a moment of American unity as we welcome them home.”
Iran and the United States have a history of prisoner exchanges dating back to the 1979 U.S. embassy takeover and the hostage crisis that followed the Islamic Revolution.