Five U.S. citizens detained by Iran were released Monday as part of a high-risk, complex diplomatic deal between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Biden administration that includes the transfer of $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian oil assets and the release of The US was expected to return to the US on Monday evening and land in the Washington, DC area.
The American prisoners include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, all of whom were sentenced to 10 years in prison on unfounded espionage charges. Two Americans involved in the agreement – including a former U.N. employee – wanted to remain anonymous, according to U.S. officials.
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The flight carrying the U.S. citizens from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar, shortly before 11 a.m. ET on Monday. They were transferred to U.S. custody and are on a plane bound for Washington, D.C., where they will be reunited with their families, senior administration officials said.
According to Shargi’s family, President Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to the detainees’ families in a brief phone call after their arrival in Doha. The White House called it an “emotional call.”
Sources familiar with the planning said Americans were expected to receive U.S. government cellphones so they could call their families before they arrived and share the news of their freedom.
U.S. citizens Siamak Namazi (center, wearing glasses) and Morad Tahbaz are greeted upon their arrival at Doha International Airport in Doha, Qatar, following their release from Iran, September 18, 2023. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
Namazi, a 51-year-old businessman, was the longest-held detainee. He was arrested in 2015 and left behind in previous prisoner exchanges by both the Obama and Trump administrations.
Shargi, a businessman and Washington, D.C. resident, and Tahbaz, a British-American citizen and environmentalist, were both arrested in 2018.
An undated photo shows Emad Shargi. Provided by the Shargi family
Also on the flight were Namazi’s mother, Effie Namazi, and Tahbaz’s wife, Vida Tahbaz – both of whom had previously been unable to leave Iran, according to senior government officials.
Shargi’s sister said his family received video calls from him “beaming and incredibly grateful” upon his arrival in Doha.
Jared Genser, the Namazi family’s pro bono attorney, told CBS News the family was flooded with emotions.
“The long and unimaginable nightmare of the Namazis may be over, but it is also the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” Genser said in an emailed statement.
Upon returning to the United States, Americans will have the opportunity to undergo a support process at a military hospital at Fort Belvoir in Virginia to prepare for re-entry after captivity.
Since the United States has not had official relations with Iran since 1979, the Americans were escorted to the Qatari plane by the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Nadine Olivier. She has helped monitor the Americans’ welfare since they were moved from Evin prison to house arrest in August after the Biden administration agreed in principle to the swap.
Ahead of the exchange, senior government officials did not provide details about the Americans’ health, but noted that the Swiss had said the Iranians had complied with the agreed living conditions for their house arrest. Olivier served as the Biden administration’s eyes and ears on the ground, confirming to State Department officials that the Americans were on board the flight.
Five Americans were released by Iran on September 18, 2023 as part of a prison exchange. CBS News
Switzerland and Qatar have acted as mediators for the United States and Iran since the minimal diplomatic contact between the two nations established under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was severed The Trump administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018. Despite a campaign promise to revive the agreement, the Biden administration’s attempts have failed. Iran’s nuclear development continued.
Despite the swap, distrust between Washington and Tehran is high. The Biden administration agreed to help Iran gain access to $6 billion in Iranian oil assets held in an escrow account in South Korea to incentivize Tehran to carry out the swap. Sources familiar with the complex diplomatic agreement told CBS News that the billions of dollars in oil revenues were transferred through European banks in the form of euros to a blocked account in Qatar on Sunday.
“We hope that today the Islamic Republic of Iran has fully confiscated its assets and transferred everything to an Iranian account in a friendly country in the region,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced on Monday. “The Iranian government should have full access to it and be able to use it according to its needs.”
The plan was for the U.S. Treasury Department to block Tehran’s access to the funds until the Americans cleared Iranian airspace. The Biden administration has repeatedly said that the U.S. Treasury Department will continue to monitor the Qatar account and limit the use of funds for humanitarian purposes only.
A Qatari plane carrying five U.S. citizens detained in Iran lands at Doha International Airport in Doha, Qatar, on September 18, 2023. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images
The Biden administration briefed Congress before the deal, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said the information offered to his staff was not enough to defend the administration’s deal.
“Obviously money is fungible,” Warner told “Face the Nation.” “The administration has said that there are guard rails. I would first like to get a better description of these guardrails.”
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, worries that any financial relief could incentivize future hostage-taking.
“Any time you put a price on Americans, you incentivize people to take more hostages,” Turner told “Face the Nation.” He rejected the Biden administration’s argument that funding would be restricted.
Senior administration officials reiterated Sunday evening that the funds would be “severely restricted” and would be routed through “trusted” banks with the “full cooperation” of the Qatari government.
“This is not a payment of any kind,” a senior administration official said Sunday night.
The money that South Korea paid to Iran for oil years ago and then froze should only be used for humanitarian purposes and is limited to food, medicine, medical equipment and agricultural products, a senior administration official said. They emphasized that this was not US tax money and that no money would flow directly to Iranian companies or institutions. If Iran tries to redirect the money, the U.S. would take action to “freeze” the funds, the official said.
In addition to those billions, Mr Biden agreed to grant clemency to five Iranians facing charges in the US. Iran identified its citizens as Mehrdad Meoin Ansari, who was indicted in 2011 and convicted in 2021 for violating economic sanctions with Iran; Amin Hasanzadeh of Michigan is accused of stealing confidential documents from his employer; Kambiz Attar-Kashani, a U.S.-Iranian dual citizen convicted of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran; Canada resident Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, who is accused of illegally exporting laboratory equipment through Canada and the United Arab Emirates; and Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a Massachusetts-based scientist and U.S. permanent resident who was accused of acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government.
The U.S. has not confirmed the identities of the released Iranians, but government officials noted that they were all accused of nonviolent crimes. Officials also said the prison sentences of the two convicted Iranians were almost up.
Afrasiabi told CBS News that he would not return to Tehran but would remain in the United States. Administration officials said they expect two of the Iranians, who do not have legal status in the United States, to return to Iran through Doha.
A senior administration official said the agreement “does not in any way change our relationship with Iran. Iran is an opponent and state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold him accountable wherever possible.”
The Biden administration announced new sanctions Monday against Iran’s intelligence ministry and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the swap ends a long trauma for the families of the formerly imprisoned Americans. It is also likely to reignite the political debate about whether the previously announced deal will benefit the heavily sanctioned Iranian regime and, in turn, provide incentives for further hostage-taking.
A senior administration official said Sunday evening: “We’re obviously not at all convinced by the practice.” [of taking hostages] will end” and warned Americans that traveling to Iran was “an extremely risky endeavor.”
In a statement thanking those who worked to secure his freedom, Namazi also called on the Biden administration to work with world leaders to enforce consequences that would prevent future hostage takings.
“Mr President, the story of my eight years of captivity is ultimately a stark reminder that once our citizens are captured by a rogue state, we are left with no good options,” Namazi said. “Only when the free world finally agrees to collectively impose draconian consequences on those who use human lives as a mere bargaining chip will the Iranian regime and its ilk be forced to make different choices.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to arrive in New York this week to address the UN General Assembly, which Mr Biden is also scheduled to attend.
Olivia Gazis, Kristin Brown, Bo Erickson and Caitlin Yilek contributed to this report.
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