After intense, secret negotiations, Iran on Thursday released four US citizens from prison and placed them under house arrest in what US officials hope will lead to their eventual release from Iran, the Biden administration said.
A fifth American was already under house arrest and will join the group as negotiations progress, people familiar with the negotiations said. They are being held under guard in a hotel, said a lawyer representing one of the Americans.
The deal was described as a first step in what could be a multi-week process, the well-known people said.
National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson confirmed on Thursday that the Americans had left prison.
“We have received confirmation that Iran has released five Americans who were wrongfully detained from prison and placed them under house arrest,” Watson said in a statement. “While this is an encouraging step, these US citizens – Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Shargi and two Americans who wish to remain private at this time – should never have been detained.”
“We will continue to monitor their condition as closely as possible,” she added. “Of course we will not rest until they are all back home in the United States. Until then, negotiations for their eventual release are ongoing and delicate.”
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called the development “a positive step”, adding that “there is more work to be done to get them home”.
“I believe this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare,” he said.
Iran will eventually gain access to the equivalent of about $6 billion in frozen assets held by South Korea, but with restrictions that the money can only be spent on humanitarian materials, the sources said. Iran remains under numerous US and European sanctions. While it is Iran’s money, earned from the sale of oil, it is likely to irk Republicans and other Iran hardliners to access it now. The Biden administration is also considering releasing an unknown number of Iranian prisoners once US citizens are home.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, a 2024 Republican presidential candidate, criticized the deal as “the largest ransom payment in American history.”
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, a non-profit organization focused on conflict prevention, pointed out that the money belongs to Tehran.
“The ransom is never paid by the hostage taker himself. This is Iran’s money and Iran pays for the hostages, not the United States,” Vaez said.
Vaez, a friend of Namazi’s who is familiar with the details of the negotiations, said he expects the Americans to be released within “a few weeks” once the assets reach Doha. But the deal is far from finalized, Vaez said.
“There is a lot of friction between Iran and the US and their respective allies in the region that could lead to an accidental or accidental incident,” he said.
“It’s actually several weeks of potentially multiple ‘Argo’ moments that could derail this whole process,” he added, referring to the movie about rescuing Americans during Iran’s hostage crisis of 1979-81.
US negotiators worked through Swiss, Omani and Qatari officials to reach an agreement. Iran and the United States have no diplomatic relations. Full freedom for Americans may be a long way off, the well-known people warned.
Namazi, who has been held by Iran for eight years, and Shargi are businessmen and Tahbaz is an environmental activist. At least one of the other two not immediately identified by US officials is a woman. Attorney Jared Genser is representing Namazi, who is considered the longest-serving American in Iran.
Babak Namazi, Siamak’s brother, said the family was grateful for the release.
“While this is a positive change, we will not rest until Siamak and others return home; we continue to count the days until this can happen,” the brother said in a statement released by Genser’s office. “We have suffered immensely and indescribably for eight horrific years and just want to be reunited as a family.”
The three men identified are both American and Iranian nationals and were imprisoned on what Iran called security-related charges. Namazi’s father, Baquer, was also arrested by Iran in 2016 when he went to visit his son, but was released in October on “humanitarian grounds,” Tehran said. He is 86 years old and in poor health.
Tahbaz and Shargi were arrested in 2018.
The US citizens were held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, where reports of torture, brutal interrogations and poor conditions are rampant.
Earlier this year, Siamak Nazari gave a dramatic telephone interview to CNN from prison. He said he had become desperate, felt abandoned and complained bitterly about his plight. Addressing President Biden, he said, “I implore you, sir, to put the lives and freedom of innocent Americans above all politics involved and just do whatever it takes to end this nightmare and get us home.”
His family said at the time that his decision to risk an appearance on CNN was a sign of his desperation.
Washington has long accused Iran, like Russia and a handful of other countries, of seizing US citizens as a way of blackmailing or making concessions. Successive US administrations have labeled such prisoners as “unjustly detained” and work for their release through an agency specifically created to handle hostage cases.
The US has imposed harsh sanctions on Tehran over its military activities in the region, human rights violations and other “malicious” behavior.
The Biden administration has insisted that negotiations over the detainees be conducted independently of talks with Iran on curtailing its nuclear program. The nuclear talks have stalled.
The US citizens negotiations being held in Iran are the latest in a series of clandestine prisoner swaps that the Biden administration has managed to secure over the past two years.
The president secured the release of human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, who was detained in Rwanda in March. In one of the more high-profile cases, the government struck a deal with Russia in December for the release of Brittney Griner, an American basketball player who was arrested in 2022 for possession of vape cartridges containing hash oil.
Griner was released in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian convicted arms dealer. She has used her freedom to advocate for other Americans detained abroad, including Paul Whelan, a former Navy and corporate security executive who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 and is imprisoned on espionage charges.
Like presidents before him, Biden has made it a priority since taking office to bring back Americans who have been held hostage or wrongly held. Former President Trump claimed to have aided in the liberation of countless Americans, and during the 2020 presidential campaign released a video featuring six of them, including Reverend Andrew Brunson, a North Carolina pastor who was imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years .
Last July, Biden issued an executive order directing his administration to use financial sanctions and visa bans on both states and individuals as a means to secure the release of detained Americans. The warrant also directed agencies to share intelligence with relatives of people detained.
But several Americans are still being held abroad, including Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in Russia in late March on espionage charges. Gershkovich has denied the allegations and the US has ruled that he is being wrongly detained.
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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.