By JON GAMBRELL, LUJAIN JO and MATTHEW LEE (Associated Press)
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Five prisoners wanted by the United States in a swap deal with Iran were released Monday and returned home in a deal that unfroze nearly $6 billion dollars of Iranian assets.
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.
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.
“Today, five innocent Americans imprisoned in Iran finally return home,” President Joe Biden said in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar.
After the plane stopped, three of the prisoners walked down the ramp and were greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis. Former prisoners hugged the ambassador and others.
The three – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz – then put their arms around each other’s shoulders and walked towards an airport building.
In a statement issued on his behalf after landing, Namazi said: “I would not be free today, if you had not all 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,” said Namazi.
In addition to the five released Americans, two American family members left Tehran, according to a senior Biden administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity while the exchange was underway.
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said the exchange would take place on Monday after nearly $6 billion in formerly frozen Iranian assets arrived 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. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website considered close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners had arrived in Doha for the exchange.
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 deal has 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.
In his statement, Biden urged Americans not to travel to Iran and demanded 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, 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.
American authorities 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 two people who Nour News reported were in Doha were: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced to 63 months in prison in 2021 for obtaining material that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare 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 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.
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 – if Iran decided to do so. 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.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Lee from Washington. Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.