- By Bernd Debusmann Jr
- BBC news
A plane carrying five Americans imprisoned in Iran for years has landed in the United States after a controversial prisoner swap.
They landed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, just south of Washington DC on Tuesday morning.
They earlier flew from Tehran to Doha, where they were transferred to a plane bound for the United States.
The final part of the deal fell into place on Monday, when $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian cash – held in South Korea – was sent to banks in Doha.
The released prisoners are dual Iranian-American citizens. Five Iranians have also been released from US custody, and of these five, three chose not to return to Iran.
The plane carrying the five Americans landed at Davison Army Airfield shortly before 05:30 local time (09:30 GMT) and they had an emotional, tearful reunion with family members on the tarmac.
Friends and family waved small American flags as the group exited the plane.
“The nightmare is finally over,” said a relative of one of the freed Americans, Siamak Namazi. “We haven’t had this moment in over eight years. It’s unbelievable.”
“(It’s) the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” added a representative for the family.
Also on board the plane were two family members, US presidential envoy Roger Carstens and Abram Paley, deputy envoy for Iran. Both met the released prisoners in Doha.
In brief remarks at Fort Belvoir, Mr. Carstens urged the former prisoners to take advantage of “post-isolation support” offered by the US military and expressed confidence that they would “keep up the fight to bring more Americans home “.
US officials have long argued that five detainees in Iran were wrongfully imprisoned for political influence.
The Americans include the 51-year-old businessman Mr. Namazi – who spent almost eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison – as well as businessman Emad Shargi, 59, and 67-year-old environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British citizenship.
The other two prisoners did not want to be named.
The five Iranians released as part of the deal were mostly imprisoned in the US on charges that they violated US sanctions.
In a statement on Monday, US President Joe Biden welcomed the prisoner swap, saying Americans would be reunited with their loved ones “after enduring years of pain, uncertainty and suffering”.
At the same time, Mr Biden pledged to “continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region”.
“And as we welcome our fellow citizens home, I once again remind all Americans of the grave risks of traveling to Iran,” he added. “US passport holders should not travel there”.
The president’s comments came as the United States announced new sanctions targeting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
In a statement, one of the released prisoners, Siamak Namazi, said he “wouldn’t be free today if it wasn’t for all of you who didn’t allow the world to forget me”.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being my voice when I couldn’t speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I gathered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison,” he added. .
The Iranian funds released as part of the deal owed South Korea to Tehran for oil purchased before the Trump administration’s 2019 sanctions banned such transactions. The US has said that the released funds can only be used for humanitarian purposes.
However, the repayment of the money has sparked controversy in the US and has come under intense criticism from some of Mr Biden’s political opponents.
Several prominent Republicans have expressed concern that Iran will use the money to support proxy groups in the Middle East.
The US government has played down these concerns. Last week, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the US Treasury has “strict oversight” of the money and that Washington “has the ability to control its use”.
A senior official also told reporters that the United States will move to block the funds if Iran tries to divert them or use them for anything other than humanitarian purposes.