By JON GAMBRELL, LUJAIN JO and MATTHEW LEE (Associated Press)
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Five Americans detained for years in Iran stepped off a plane and found freedom Monday, most arm in arm, in a politically risky deal that saw President Joe Biden agree to release nearly $6 billion. in frozen Iranian assets owed to a third country, South Korea.
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,” Biden said in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar. A plane carrying Americans to the United States was scheduled to land Monday evening.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, suggested Monday’s 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 walked down the stairs. They hugged the U.S. ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis, and others.
The three – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz – then threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and headed towards an airport building.
In a statement issued on his behalf, 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,” a- he declared.
The United States did not immediately identify the other two released Americans, all of whom were released in exchange for five Iranians held by the United States and a deal on frozen Iranian assets. 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. The women also hugged and kissed each other on the tarmac in Qatar.
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 Iranians released 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 and other military equipment, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani. , an Iranian man charged in 2021 with 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 planned exchange comes before world leaders convene at the United Nations General Assembly this week in New York, where Raissi will speak.
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 the polls against Biden’s 2024 re-election bid, called it an “absolutely ridiculous” deal 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 urged Americans not to travel to Iran and demanded 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; 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.
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.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Qatar, Switzerland, South Korea and Oman for helping bring the deal to fruition. Biden pledged in a statement to continue pressing for “accountability from Iran and other regimes for the cruel practice of wrongful detention.”
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 swap collapsed after then-President Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the nuclear deal in 2018. Starting the following year, a series of attacks and seizures of ships attributed to Iran have increased tensions.
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; Paul Haven in New York; Ellen Knickmeyer, Eric Tucker and Farnoush Amiri in Washington, and Aamer Madhani and Michelle Phillips in New York contributed.