WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans held captive in Iran for years returned home Tuesday after being freed as part of a politically risky deal in which President Joe Biden agreed to the release of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets.
The successful negotiations for Americans’ freedom brought Biden copious thanks from their families, but also warmth from Republican presidential rivals and other opponents for the monetary settlement with one of America’s biggest adversaries.
“Today, five innocent Americans 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 with the Americans on board 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 hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York, suggested the exchange could be “a step toward humanitarian action between us and America.”
“It can certainly help build trust,” Raisi told reporters.
However, tensions are almost certain to remain high between the US and Iran, which are embroiled in disputes over Tehran’s nuclear program and other matters. Iran says the program is peaceful but is now enriching uranium closer than ever to weapons-grade levels.
The release of prisoners came amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, with the possibility of U.S. troops boarding and guarding commercial 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 – emerged.
They hugged the US ambassador to Qatar, Timmy Davis and others. The three then threw their arms over each other’s shoulders and walked away towards the airport.
In a statement issued on his behalf, Namazi said: “I would not be free today, if you all had not allowed the world to forget me.”
“Thank you for being my voice when I couldn’t 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 other two freed Americans. All were released in exchange for five Iranians in US custody and for the deal on frozen Iranian assets owed to South Korea. The Biden administration said the five freed Iranians do not pose a threat to U.S. national security.
Two relatives of the captured Americans, Effie Namazi and Vida Tahbaz, who were banned from traveling in Iran, were also on the plane.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranian detainees will remain in the US. 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 swap.
Nour News identified the two in Doha as: Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced to 63 months in prison by the US in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons and other military equipment, and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian who was indicted in 2021 for allegedly unlawfully exporting laboratory equipment to Iran.
The $5.9 billion in cash released 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 US claims that once in Qatar, the money will be kept in restricted accounts and used only for humanitarian goods such as medicine and food. These transactions are currently permitted under US sanctions against the Islamic Republic due to its advancing nuclear program.
Iranian government officials largely agree, although some hardliners have insisted without evidence that there would be no restrictions on how Tehran spends the money.
The deal has already opened Biden up to new 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. forces and Middle Eastern allies. That could have consequences for his re-election campaign.
Former President Donald Trump, currently the leading Republican challenger in that race, called it an “absolutely ridiculous” deal on the social media site Truth Social. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused Biden of “rewarding and encouraging Tehran’s bad behavior.”
Biden made what the White House described as an emotional phone call with the families of the freed Americans after their release.
In his statement, Biden 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 US government, the detainees’ families and activists have described the charges against the five Americans as unfounded.
The Americans included Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years in prison on espionage charges; Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to ten years; and Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also jailed for 10 years.
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 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.”
Iran and the US have a history of prisoner swaps dating back to the 1979 takeover of the US embassy and the hostage crisis after the Islamic Revolution.
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Jo 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.