WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans imprisoned in Iran for years returned home Tuesday to be released as part of a politically risky deal President Joe Biden agreed to release nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
The successful negotiations over Americans’ freedom earned Biden effusive thanks from their families, but also criticism from Republican presidential rivals and other opponents for the currency deal with one of America’s biggest adversaries.
“Today, five innocent Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” Biden said in a statement released as the plane carrying the group from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar, on Monday.
In the early hours of Tuesday, a plane carrying the Americans landed in the United States, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Iran’s hardliner President Ebrahim Raisi, in attendance for the United Nations General Assembly in New Yorksuggested that the exchange could be “a step toward humanitarian action between us and America.”
“It can definitely help build trust,” Raisi told reporters.
However, Tensions will almost certainly remain high between the United States and Iran, which are embroiled in disputes over Tehran’s nuclear program and other matters. Iran says the program is peaceful, but it is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
The prisoners’ release came amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of a U.S. troop buildup Boarding and guarding merchant ships in the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of all oil shipments pass.
After the plane came to a stop in Doha, three of the prisoners – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz – came out.
They hugged US Ambassador to Qatar Timmy Davis and others. Then the three threw their arms around each other’s shoulders and walked towards the airport.
In a statement issued on his behalf, Namazi said: “I would not be free today if you all did not allow 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 mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison,” he said.
The United States did not immediately identify the two other released Americans. All were released in exchange for five Iranians in U.S. custody and for the deal on the frozen Iranian assets owed to South Korea. The Biden administration said the five released Iranians did not pose a threat to U.S. national security.
Also on the plane were two family members of the detained Americans, Effie Namazi and Vida Tahbaz, who were under travel bans in Iran.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranian prisoners would remain in the United States. Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners were in Doha for the exchange.
Nour News identified the two in Doha as: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian who was sentenced to 63 months in prison by the US in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used for missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons and other military equipment, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian who was indicted in 2021 for allegedly illegally exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.
The $5.9 billion in cash released to Iran was money that South Korea owed Iran — but had not yet paid — for oil purchased before the U.S. imposed sanctions on such transactions in 2019 imposed.
The US claims that once the money arrives in Qatar, it is held in blocked accounts and can only be used for humanitarian goods such as medicine and food. These transactions are currently permitted under American sanctions against the Islamic Republic over its advancing nuclear program.
Iranian government officials largely agreed, although some hardliners insisted without evidence that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran could use the money.
The deal is already closed opened Biden to new criticism from Republicans and others who say the administration is helping to boost Iran’s economy at a time when Iran poses a growing threat to American troops and allies in the Middle East. This could have an impact on his re-election campaign.
Former President Donald Trump, currently the main Republican challenger in this race, called it an “absolutely ridiculous” deal on the social media site Truth Social. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of “rewarding and incentivizing Tehran’s bad behavior.”
According to the White House, Biden had an emotional phone call with the families of the released Americans after their release.
In his statement, Biden called for more information about what happened to Bob Levinson, an American disappeared years ago. The Biden administration also announced new sanctions against former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
The US government, the families of the prisoners and activists have called the allegations against the five Americans unfounded.
The Americans included Namazi, who was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges; Sharghi, a venture capitalist, sentenced to 10 years in prison; and Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year prison sentence.
In a statement, Sharghi’s sister Neda said she “can’t wait to hug my brother and never let him go.”
“This is my brother, not abstract politics,” she added. “We are talking about human lives. Saving the lives of innocent Americans is not partisan, and today should be a moment of American unity as we welcome them home.”
There is a long history of prisoner exchanges in Iran and the United States, dating back to the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy and the hostage crisis following the Islamic Revolution.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Jo reported from Doha, Qatar. Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Matthew Lee, Paul Haven, Aamer Madhani and Michelle Phillips in New York; and Eric Tucker and Farnoush Amiri in Washington contributed to this report.