Five Americans en route to the US in $6 Billion US-Iran prisoner swap dealon Monday. They made an initial stop in Doha, Qatar, as confirmed by a US official and a source with knowledge of the situation.
This release is part of a broader agreement that involves the United States unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets. The freedom granted to these five individuals marks the end of a long and harrowing ordeal for them.
Among the three individuals named in the agreement - Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and Siamak Namazi - all had endured imprisonment for over five years, with Siamak Namazi having been detained since 2015. The identities of the remaining two Americans have not been publicly disclosed.
Siamak Namazi's mother, Effie Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz's wife, Vida Tahbaz, who were previously restricted from leaving Iran, were also passengers on the flight from Iran to Doha. This information was confirmed by a senior official from the Biden administration.
They were transported out of Tehran aboard a Qatari government aircraft on Monday afternoon local time. Subsequently, they departed for the Washington, DC area to reunite with their families, as reported by the senior administration official.
In a statement issued on Monday, President Joe Biden expressed his joy over the release of the five Americans, who had "endured years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering."
"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," Biden wrote in the statement released shortly before the Americans were scheduled to land in Doha.
The release of these individuals marks a noteworthy diplomatic achievement following years of intricate, indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran, both of which lack formal diplomatic relations. A senior official from the Biden administration emphasized that this agreement "has not changed our relationship with Iran in any way." The United States remains committed to addressing Iran's human rights violations and constraining its nuclear program as part of its ongoing efforts.
In his statement, Biden thanked "partners at home and abroad for their tireless efforts to help us achieve this outcome, including the Governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea."
The release that occurred on Monday, which represents the most recent in a series of high-profile agreements brokered by the Biden administration to secure the freedom of Americans wrongfully detained overseas, has drawn criticism from certain Republicans. They have drawn parallels to a "ransom payment," particularly in the wake of previous releases involving Americans detained in Russia and Venezuela.
US citizens Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz being embraced after disembarking from a jet in Doha, Qatar
The broad outlines of this agreement began to take shape in Doha approximately seven months ago, following years of indirect negotiations. The first visible steps in this deal materialized about five weeks ago when four of the American detainees were moved to house arrest, while the fifth individual was already in a similar situation.
During this period, the Swiss ambassador to Iran played a crucial role by making regular visits to check on the conditions and well-being of the Americans. It's worth noting that Switzerland acts as the protecting power for the United States in Iran, given the absence of formal diplomatic relations.
In the days leading up to the release, the US government meticulously coordinated the logistical aspects, although officials involved in the process acknowledged that circumstances could always change.
Upon the aircraft's arrival in Doha, a senior State Department official confirmed that medical personnel would be present on the ground to greet the released Americans. Additionally, medical professionals would accompany them on the flight back to the United States.
And "we're going to be handing them government phones and telling them: 'Go ahead and call your family members and let them know that you’re OK and that you’re coming back,'" the official said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken reported having an emotional conversation with the seven Americans who were released from Iran when they arrived in Doha.
Today, their freedom, the freedom of these Americans for so long unjustly imprisoned and detained in Iran means some pretty basic things: it means that husbands and wives, fathers and children, grandparents can hug each other again, can see each other again, can be with each other again.- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
The family of Emad Sharghi shared in a statement that they had a brief conversation with him, during which he sounded excited and optimistic. They also had a phone call with President Biden, who conveyed that he had initiated efforts to secure the release of these Americans since the beginning of his presidency.
He expressed his happiness that the positive outcome had been achieved, albeit later than he wished. According to the statement, a US official confirmed that President Biden spoke with all the affected families.
The family of Morad and Vida Tahbaz expressed their overwhelming joy and relief at finally having their loved ones free.
We are grateful to President Biden and his Administration for making the difficult but necessary decision to prioritize the lives of American citizens over politics. Thank you for leading with courage and compassion.- Family of Morad and Vida Tahbaz
Siamak Namazi, who had been held in detention since 2015, conveyed in a statement, "For almost eight years I have been dreaming of this day."
"Now that it is finally here, I find my ineffable joy of my forthcoming reunification with my family is laced with sorrow - a painful and deep feeling of guilt for taking my breaths in freedom while so many courageous individuals that I love and admire continue languishing behind those walls," he said.
Upon their return to the United States, the freed Americans will be offered the opportunity to partake in a Department of Defense program called PISA (Post Isolation Support Activities), aimed at assisting them in readjusting to everyday life, as per officials.
Three of the five realeased U.S. citizens disembarking from a flight in Doha, Qatar
According to sources briefed on the matter, as part of the agreement between the US and Iran, $6 billion in Iranian funds, previously held in restricted accounts in South Korea, has been relocated to restricted accounts in banks located in Qatar. Qatar informed Iranian and US officials on Monday regarding the successful transfer.
The sources also indicated that these funds originated from permissible oil sales and had been deposited into accounts established during the Trump administration. Biden administration officials have emphasized that these transferred funds in Qatar's accounts are earmarked exclusively for humanitarian purchases and will be subject to monitoring by the US Treasury Department for each transaction.
"We are implementing this arrangement through the establishment of what we are calling the humanitarian channel in Qatar," explained the first senior administration official. This channel is specifically designed to prevent money laundering and the inappropriate use of funds.
Furthermore, this agreement encompasses the release of five Iranians who were in US custody. The official noted that two of these five Iranians had already served a significant portion of their sentences, while the other three were awaiting trial and had not yet been convicted.
According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry, two of the Iranians were returning to Iran, one was expected to depart for another country, and the remaining two were anticipated to stay in the United States. US officials emphasized that those staying in the US do not pose a national security threat.
"The Iranians that are being released as part of this are small potatoes," a senior State Department official said. "There are some big, big fish that the Iranians want out of our judicial system that they've asked for for some time. We've been engaged in difficult and principled negotiations for a long time and out of that process, they're not getting anybody that they really care about."
The first senior official from the State Department expressed that the Biden administration believes they have secured a highly favorable deal.
"We feel like we're going to get these Americans out on terms that are good both for them as well as for the American people, so we’re moving forward with this," the official explained, adding that they believe the US "got the better end of the stick in this deal."
Senior administration officials declined to disclose the specific timing of when President Biden approved the deal.
Brett McGurk, who serves as the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, stated on Monday that the Biden administration had been actively involved in negotiations for the release of the five Americans "since the earliest weeks of our administration."
We had standards of what we would accept, and what we would not accept, and really over the last six months, that process intensified. We had very intense negotiations in Doha in Qatar - we’re very grateful to Qatar, and also to Oman, for helping to facilitate this - and when the arrangement came together on terms that we could accept, based on the standards that we always said we would accept, the president made the difficult, but the right decision to move ahead.- Brett McGurk
Former Vice President Mike Pence, during whose tenure the White House facilitated two prisoner swap agreements with Tehran, criticized President Biden in a Monday afternoon speech for what he perceived as allowing Iran to "foment terrorism across the Middle East."
In response to this criticism, a senior administration official defended the decision, stating, "These are some of the most difficult decisions a president makes, but I think this deal stands up."
"When you look at the full contours of the deal, compared with the alternative - the alternative is these Americans never come home. So I think it very much holds up," they said.
In response to the release of the five Americans, the US has imposed fresh sanctions on Iran. These sanctions specifically target the Ministry of Intelligence in Tehran and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The aim is to hold them accountable for their failure to provide information regarding Bob Levinson, an American who was detained in Iran for over a decade and is presumed to have passed away there.
"We'll never give up on Bob Levinson's case," one senior administration official said.
"We can't emphasize strongly enough that the Iranian regime must finally come clean, allow for Bob Levinson to be at peace, and for the Levinson family to have answers. We will continue to call on Iran to give a full accounting of what happened to Bob Levinson, from his initial captivity to his ultimate murder," a second senior administration official said.
In a statement, the Levinson family expressed their appreciation for the release of the Americans and the imposition of new sanctions. However, they emphasized that while this news is welcomed, it does not bring an end to their family's enduring nightmare and continual suffering. They also stressed that it does not absolve the Iranian regime of its cruel actions and persistent deception.
"We will never stop demanding that Iranian leaders answer for what happened to Robert Levinson, the greatest man we have ever known," they said.
"The actions announced today with the full force of the U.S. government behind them are a welcome step toward justice for Bob Levinson, and they are by no means the last. We will not rest until the cruel Iranian regime is held fully accountable, and our father knows true peace," they said.