Iran prisoner swap: 5 Americans back in US after being released in complex diplomatic deal | Brasarr

Iran prisoner swap: 5 Americans back in US after being released in complex diplomatic deal

Five American citizens detained by Iran were released Monday in a complex, high-stakes diplomatic deal between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Biden administration that included transfer of $6 billion in unfrozen Iranian oil assets and the release of five Iranians charged in the United States. A plane carrying the Americans home landed on American soil on Tuesday morning.

The American prisoners include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, who had all been sentenced to 10 years in prison on unsubstantiated espionage charges. Two Americans involved in the deal – including a female former UN worker – wished to remain anonymous, according to US officials.

A flight carrying American citizens from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar, shortly before 11 a.m. ET Monday. They were transferred to U.S. custody and then boarded another plane bound for the Washington, DC area, where they were expected to be reunited with their families, senior administration officials said.

From left, Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi, former prisoners of Iran, exit a Qatar Airways flight that took them out of Tehran and to Doha, Qatar, on September 18, 2023.

Lujain Jo/AP

President Biden and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with the detainees’ families in a brief call after their arrival in Doha, according to Shargi’s family. The White House described it as an “emotional call”.

Sources familiar with the planning said the Americans were expected to be given US government mobile phones to call their families to share the news of their freedom before their arrival.

Namazia 51-year-old businessman, was the longest detained, having been arrested in 2015 and left by both the Obama and Trump administrations in previous prisoner swaps.

Shargia businessman and resident of Washington, DC, and Tahbaz, a British-American citizen and environmentalist, were both detained in 2018.

An undated photo shows Emad Shargi.

Provided by the Shargi family

Also on the plane 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 administration officials.

Shargi’s sister said his family received video calls from him upon his arrival in Doha, where he was “glowing and incredibly grateful.”

Jared Genser, the Namazi family’s pro bono counsel, told CBS News the family was overwhelmed with emotion.

“While the Namazis’ long and unimaginable nightmare has come to an end, it is also the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” Genser said in an emailed statement.

Upon their return to the United States, the Americans will have the opportunity to undergo a supportive process at a military hospital in Fort Belvoir, Virginia to prepare for their re-entry after captivity.

Because the United States has not had official relations with Iran since 1979, the Americans were escorted to the Qatar plane by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Nadine Olivier. She has helped monitor the well-being of Americans since they were moved from Evin prison to house arrest in August following the Biden administration’s in-principle acceptance of the swap.

Ahead of the swap, senior officials did not share details about the Americans’ health conditions, but noted that the Swiss have said the Iranians were complying with the agreed living conditions of 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 plane.

Five Americans were released by Iran in a prison swap on September 18, 2023.

CBS News

Switzerland and Qatar have acted as intermediaries for the US and Iran since the minimal diplomatic contact between the two nations established as part of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was severed when the Trump administration left the deal in 2018. Despite a campaign promise to revive the deal, the Biden administration’s efforts have failed. Iran’s nuclear development continues.

Mistrust between Washington and Tehran, even amid the exchange, is high. The Biden administration agreed to help Iran gain access to $6 billion in Iranian oil assets which had been held in a restricted account in South Korea as an incentive for Tehran to complete the swap. Sources familiar with the complex diplomatic deal told CBS News that the billions in oil revenues were transferred through European banks in euros to an escrow account in Qatar as late as Sunday.

“We hope to see the complete recovery of assets from the Islamic Republic of Iran today and that it will all be transferred to Iran’s account in a friendly country in the region,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced on Monday. “The government of Iran should have complete access to it, to use it according to its needs.”

The plan was to have the US Treasury block Tehran from accessing the funds until the Americans left Iranian airspace. The Biden administration has repeatedly said that the US Treasury Department will continue to monitor the account in Qatar and limit the use of funds for exclusively humanitarian purposes.

A Qatari jet carrying five American 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 in advance on the deal, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, indicated that the information to his staff was not sufficient for him to defend the administration’s deal.

“Obviously, money is fungible,” Warner told “Face the Nation.” “The administration has said there are guardrails. I’d like a better description of those guardrails first.”

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, worries that any economic relief will encourage future hostage-taking.

“When you put a price on American heads, you get an incentive for people to take more hostages,” Turner told “Face the Nation.” He rejected the Biden administration’s argument that the funds would be limited.

Senior administration officials reiterated Sunday night that the funds are “severely limited” and are being channeled 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, which was paid by South Korea to Iran years ago for oil and subsequently frozen, is to be used only for humanitarian purposes and is limited to food, medicine, medical equipment and agricultural products, a senior administration official said. They emphasized that it is not US taxpayer money and no funds will go directly to Iranian companies or entities. If Iran tries to divert the money, the United States will take steps to “freeze” the funds, the official said.

In addition to these billions, Mr. Biden in granting clemency to five Iranians who were accused in the United States. Iran identified its citizens as Mehrdad Meoin Ansari, indicted in 2011 and sentenced in 2021 for violating economic sanctions with Iran; Michigan resident Amin Hasanzadeh, accused of stealing confidential documents from his employer; Kambiz Attar-Kashani, a dual American and Iranian citizen who was convicted of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran; Canadian resident Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, who is accused of illegally exporting laboratory equipment through Canada and the United Arab Emirates; and Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a scholar and U.S. permanent resident of Massachusetts, who was accused of acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government.

The United States has not confirmed the identities of the Iranians being released, but administration officials noted that they were all charged with non-violent crimes. Officials also said the prison terms of the two Iranians who had been convicted were almost up.

Afrasiabi told CBS News that he would not return to Tehran but would instead remain in the US 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 official said the deal “does not change our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible.”

The Biden administration on Monday announced new sanctions against Iran’s intelligence ministry and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the exchange ends a long-term trauma for the families of the previously detained Americans. It is also likely to reignite the political debate over whether the previously announced trade benefits the heavily sanctioned Iranian regime, and in turn encourages further hostage-taking.

A senior administration official said Sunday night, “We are obviously not at all confident that the practice (of hostage-taking) will end,” and warned Americans that traveling to Iran is “an extremely high-risk 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 impose consequences that would deter future hostage-takings.

“Mr. President, the tale of my eight-year captivity is ultimately a stark reminder that when our citizens are in the grip of a rogue state, we are left with no good options,” Namazi said. “Only if the free world finally agrees to collectively impose draconian consequences on those who use human lives as mere bargaining chips will the Iranian regime and its ilk be forced to make other choices.”

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, is scheduled to arrive in New York this week to address the United Nations 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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