Five American prisoners held in Iran, some for nearly a decade, have flown out of the country to Qatar, part of a controversial prisoner swap involving the Biden administration’s thaw of $6 billion (4 .8 billion pounds) of Iranian oil money.
Tehran and Washington had agreed to exchange five prisoners each, including environmental defender Morad Tahbaz, an Anglo-American citizen.
In a complex and delicate diplomatic deal months in the making, the five Americans were taken from hotels in Tehran to a plane bound for Qatar, the first leg of a journey that would take them to Washington.
Qatar acted as mediator in the deal, starting with the electronic transfer of Iranian money to bank accounts in Qatar and Switzerland. The prisoners were only allowed to board the plane once the money transfer was complete. Aside from Tahbaz, the identities of only two other Americans have been made public.
Republican senators in the United States and some former Iranian political detainees have accused Joe Biden of striking a deal that will only encourage Iran to keep hostage-taking at the heart of its diplomatic arsenal. The US State Department says the money released is oil money owed to Iran and frozen by the Trump administration in 2018 when the US left the Iran nuclear deal.
It is unclear whether the deal will lead to a broader diplomatic breakthrough or a new, less ambitious path to limiting Iran’s civilian nuclear program, in which Tehran would agree to reduce its stockpiles of highly enriched uranium.
Last week, three European countries, including the United Kingdom, accused Iran of stockpiling highly enriched uranium that could have no civilian use.
The United States says Qatar will ensure that unfrozen money is spent only on goods — primarily food, agricultural products and medicine — that are not subject to sanctions. However, critics say it will be impossible to control the situation.
The path to the exchange recently reached a turning point when the State Department agreed to a waiver making it easier to release cash from South Korean banks to accounts in Switzerland and Doha.
The five Americans had previously been transferred from Evin prison in Tehran to different hotels in the capital.
Tahbaz was left in Iran when British-Iranian dual nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori were released in a deal brokered by then British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
The identities of five Iranians benefiting from a US pardon have been made public by Tehran. It is not clear that they all want to return to Iran. Most of them were imprisoned for violating US sanctions.
The agreement represents a diplomatic victory for Qatar as a mediator between two countries that deeply mistrust each other. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is scheduled to speak at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, will likely hail the deal as another sign of American weakness.
Michael McCaul, Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Biden of being naive and returning to past mistakes.
Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis called Biden’s decision outrageous, adding that it “sent a signal to hostile regimes: If you take Americans, you could potentially profit from them…A rogue regime should know that if you touch anyone’s hair, American, you will have hell to pay.
Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, criticized the timing of the release, so close to the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death while in Iranian police custody.
Americans of Iranian origin, whose American citizenship is not recognized by Tehran, are often pawns between the two nations. Last week, reports emerged of the arrest of three dual nationals in Iran. It was first confirmed two weeks ago that Johan Floderus, a European diplomat who visited Iran, had been imprisoned since April 2022.