Five Americans freed as part of a deal between the U.S. and Iran were flown out of the country and arrived in Doha, Qatar, Monday before boarding a flight to the U.S. later in the day.
The Americans being repatriated include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, as well as two others who asked that their identity not be made public. All five have been designated as wrongfully detained by U.S. government.
Tahbaz’s wife, Vida, and Namazi’s mother, Effie, were also allowed to leave Iran in the arrangement, according to a U.S. official. Unlike the other five, they had not been jailed by the Iranian regime but had previously been barred from leaving the country.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said, “Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home.”
“Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi, and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones — after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering,” he said. “I am grateful to our 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.
“I give special thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and to the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, both of whom helped facilitate this agreement over many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy,” he said.
Secretary of State Blinken, speaking in New York, said that he had the “great pleasure” of having an “emotional conversation” with the Americans after they landed in Doha, saying it was a good reminder of the “human element that’s at the heart of everything we do.”
He also noted that American Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent, still remains unaccounted for more than 16 years after what Blinken said was his abduction in Iran.
“We are also thinking of Bob Levinson who … is presumed to be deceased. Bob’s legacy lives on powerfully in the Levinson Act which is giving us new and powerful tools to crack down and deter the practice of taking Americans unlawfully to try to turn them into political pawns, and to abuse the international system in that way,” he said.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry first announced the U.S. nationals would be imminently released early Monday morning, fulfilling a deal struck between Washington and Tehran last month, where the U.S. promised to grant clemency to five Iranians and to facilitate Iran’s access to roughly $6 billion in frozen oil revenue on the condition the money be put toward humanitarian purposes.
The seven will be transported via a Qatari aircraft to Doha. From there, U.S. officials say they plan to depart “as quickly as possible” for the Washington, D.C., area, where they will be reunited with their families and the Department of Defense will be on hand to assist families “that might request help for their recovery and integration to normal life.”
The five Iranians involved in the trade have either been charged with or convicted of nonviolent offenses. Two do not have legal standing to stay in the U.S. and will be transported by U.S. Marshals Service to Doha and then travel on to Iran.
Two more are lawful permanent residents of the U.S., and one is a dual Iranian American citizen. Administration officials did not say whether they would remain the U.S.
The five detained Americans all served time in Iran’s notorious Evin prison but were placed on house arrest when Tehran and Washington reached a deal-in-principle.
Namazi, 51, is an oil executive and an Iranian-American dual nationalist. He was first detained in 2015 and was subsequently sentenced to 10 years in prison after a conviction on “collaboration with a hostile government” for his ties to the United States.
Shargi, a 58-year-old businessman, was detained without explanation in 2018 and released in 2019 before he was re-arrested in 2020 and handed down a 10-year sentence on an espionage charge.
Tahbaz, 67, is an Iranian-American conservationist who also holds British citizenship. He was arrested in 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Blinken signed off on a broad sanctions waiver last week, clearing the way for international banks to transfer the roughly $6 billion in Iran oil revenue in exchange for Iran’s release of the five detained American citizens.
The $6 billion is coming from a restricted account in South Korea, where it was effectively frozen when the U.S. reinstated sanctions against Tehran after former President Donald Trump left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program and will be transferred to Qatar with restrictions on how Iran can spend the funds.
Iran expected to begin receiving its frozen assets on Monday, Nasser Kanaani, a spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said, adding that “active foreign policy” had led to the funds being unblocked.
“Today this asset will be delivered,” Kanaani said. “It will be invested where needed.”
Republicans blasted the planned swap in the days after the initial announcement.
“The Americans held by Iran are innocent hostages who must be released immediately and unconditionally. However, I remain deeply concerned that the administration’s decision to waive sanctions to facilitate the transfer of $6 billion in funds for Iran, the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mike McCaul said in a statement.
But National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby insisted during a press briefing Wednesday that “Iran will be getting no sanctions relief.”
“It’s Iranian money that had been established in these accounts to allow some trade from foreign countries on things like Iranian oil. … It’s not a blank check. They don’t get to spend it anyway they want. It’s not $6 billion all at once. They will have to make a request for withdrawals for humanitarian purposes only,” he said, adding that there will be “sufficient oversight to make sure that the request is valid.”
The Iranian people will be the beneficiaries of the funds, not the regime, according to Kirby.
Pressed on why the $6 billion needed to be released in addition to the five Iranian prisoners, Kirby said, “This is the deal we were able to strike to secure the release of five Americans.”
“We’re comfortable in the parameters of this deal. I’ve heard the critics that somehow they’re getting the better end of it. Ask the families of those five Americans who’s getting the better end of it and I think you’d get a different answer,” he said.
When asked about Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s claim that the money is “fungible,” Kirby said, “He’s wrong. He’s just flat-out wrong.”
Kirby said the funds in this agreement are “not a payment of any kind” and “not ransom” to secure the release of the Americans, responding to Republican complaints.
“Expect this money to free up revenues internally for more foreign aggression and domestic suppression. And certainly, at over one billion dollars per hostage and a jailed Iranian national” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “Expect Tehran to continue if not step up its hostage taking.”
Republican Leader Mitch McConnell slammed the administration for its negotiating tactics in a speech on the Senate floor.
“Unfortunately the deal that secured their release may very well be the latest example of President Biden rewarding and incentivizing Tehran’s bad behavior,” McConnell said. “Over the past two and a half years, the administration’s weakness and desperation have emboldened a massive state sponsor of terror and would be nuclear-armed aggressor.
“The Biden administration’s record of appeasement and squandered leverage has left Americans less secure,” McConnell said. “The urgent question now is when the President will finally decide to change course. Because so far his administration’s obsession with reviving a flawed nuclear deal actually suggests otherwise.”
Kanaani, the Iranian spokesperson, said only two of the Iranians who were expected to be released from American prisons were willing to return to Iran.
“Two of [Iranian] citizens will willingly return to Iran based, one person joins his family in a third country, and the other two citizens want to stay in America,” Kanaani said.