Doha, Qatar — Five prisoners wanted by the United States in a swap deal with Iran left Tehran on Monday, officials said, in a deal that unfroze nearly $6 billion in assets Iranians.
Despite the agreement, tensions will almost certainly remain high between the United States and Iran, which are locked in various disputes, including over Tehran’s nuclear program. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it is now enriching uranium closer to weapons-grade levels than ever before.
Flight tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press showed a Qatar Airways flight taking off from Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport, which has been used for trade in the past. Iranian state media said shortly after that the flight had left Tehran.
Two people, including a senior Biden administration official, said the prisoners had left Tehran. They both spoke on condition of anonymity because the exchange was ongoing.
In addition to the five released Americans, two members of the American family left Tehran by plane, according to the Biden administration official. The flight was scheduled to land in Doha, Qatar.
Earlier, officials said the swap would take place after nearly $6 billion in formerly frozen Iranian assets reached Qatar, a key part of the deal.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was the first to acknowledge that the exchange would take place on Monday, confirming that the money sought for the exchange and held by South Korea was in Qatar.
“Fortunately, Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea have been released and, God willing, today they will begin to be fully controlled by the government and the nation,” Kanaani said.
“As for the prisoner exchange, it will take place today and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from American prisons,” he added. “Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be handed over to the United States.”
He said two of the Iranian prisoners would remain in the United States.
Mohammad Reza Farzin, the head of Iran’s central bank, then came on state television to acknowledge receipt of more than 5.5 billion euros – $5.9 billion – in accounts in Qatar. A few months ago, Iran hoped to receive up to $7 billion.
The planned exchange comes before world leaders convene at the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, where Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.
The Qatar Airways plane landed at Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Monday morning, according to flight tracking data.
Kanaani’s announcement comes weeks after Iran said five Iranian-Americans had been moved from prison to house arrest as part of a confidence-building measure. Meanwhile, Seoul authorized the conversion of frozen assets held in South Korean won into euros.
The planned exchange took place 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.
The deal has also already exposed U.S. President Joe 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 American troops and their Middle Eastern allies. It could also have implications in his re-election campaign.
On the U.S. side, Washington said the planned exchange would include Siamak Namazi, who was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison for espionage; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years in prison; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American environmental activist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also sentenced to 10 years in prison. All of their accusations have been widely criticized by their families, activists and the US government.
US authorities have so far refused to identify the fourth and fifth prisoners.
The five prisoners Iran said it was seeking are mostly being held for allegedly trying to export banned materials to Iran, such as dual-use electronic devices that could be used by a military.
The money represents money South Korea owed Iran – but had not yet paid – for oil purchased before the United States imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019.
The United States maintains that once in Qatar, the money will be held in restricted accounts and can only be used for 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 have largely agreed with this explanation, although some hard-liners have insisted, without providing evidence, that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.
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. Their most recent major exchange took place in 2016, when Iran struck a deal with world powers to restrict its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.
Four American captives, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, had returned from Iran at the time, and several Iranians in the United States were granted their freedom. The same day, President Barack Obama’s administration flew $400 million in cash to Tehran.
The West accuses Iran of using foreign prisoners – including those with dual nationality – as bargaining chips, an allegation Tehran rejects.
Negotiations on a major prisoner exchange collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal in 2018. Starting the following year, a series of attacks and of ship seizures attributed to Iran have increased tensions.
Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear program is now enriching more than ever to reach weapons-grade levels. While the head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran now has enough enriched uranium to produce “several” bombs, it would likely take additional months to build a weapon and potentially miniaturize it for mount it on a missile – should Iran decide to pursue one.
Iran maintains that its nuclear program is peaceful, and the U.S. intelligence community maintains its assessment that Iran is not seeking an atomic bomb.
Iran has taken steps in recent months to resolve some issues with the International Atomic Energy Agency. But progress in its program has raised fears of a wider regional conflagration, with Israel, itself a nuclear power, having declared that it would not allow Tehran to develop the bomb. Israel bombed Iraq and Syria to end their nuclear programs, thereby adding weight to the threat. He is also suspected of having carried out a series of assassinations targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
Iran also supplies Russia with the bomb-carrying drones that Moscow uses to target sites in Ukraine in its war against kyiv, which remains another major dispute between Tehran and Washington.