- By Lysa Doucet
- Chief International Correspondent
Five Americans imprisoned in Iran for years and widely believed to be hostages are on their way home to the United States.
The final pieces in a controversial Qatar-brokered swap fell into place as $6 billion (£4.8 billion) worth of Iranian funds held in South Korea arrived at banks in Doha.
This prompted the departure of four Americans and a woman in Tehran, who are also Iranian citizens, on a chartered flight to the Qatari capital.
They were met by high-ranking American officials and will later be flown to Washington.
The Americans include 51-year-old businessman Siamak Namazi, who spent almost eight years in Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, as well as businessman Emad Shargi (59) and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz (67), who also has British citizenship.
The US said its citizens were jailed on baseless allegations of political leverage.
In the first sign that an agreement had been reached, they were moved from Evin to a safe house in Tehran in mid-August.
The exchange also pardons five Iranians imprisoned in US prisons, mainly on charges of violating US sanctions. Not all are expected to return to Iran.
Iran named them as Reza Sarhangpour, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Amin Hasanzadeh.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” US President Joe Biden said after their plane landed in Doha.
He said all five had endured “years of agony, uncertainty and suffering”.
Mr Biden also announced new US sanctions targeting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s intelligence ministry for what he said were complicit in illegal detentions.
Siamak Namazi said in a statement: “I wouldn’t be free today if it wasn’t for all of you who didn’t let the world forget me.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being my voice when I couldn’t speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison.”
He also praised President Biden for making “some incredibly difficult decisions to save us” and “ultimately putting the lives of American citizens above politics.”
The deal comes after months of indirect talks brokered by Qatar that began in February last year.
The source said at least nine rounds of discussions took place in Doha. They also shuttled senior Qatari officials between Tehran and Washington.
“I think it’s a bit of a win-win for both sides,” Iranian-born professor Mehran Kamrava, who now teaches at Georgetown University in Qatar, told the BBC.
“For Biden going into the election, it’s bringing Americans home, and for Iran, there’s the release of Iranians from prison in the United States, but that six billion (dollars) is the big win.”
Iranian officials have repeatedly said they will spend their money however they want. But sources involved in the process insist the funds will be tightly controlled.
“No funds will go to Iran,” they emphasized. “Only humanitarian transactions, including food, medicine, agriculture, paid to third-party vendors, transaction by transaction.”
Sources told the BBC that the money was not part of Iran’s assets frozen by sanctions. Money in South Korea, revenue from the sale of Iranian oil, was available to Tehran for bilateral and non-sanctioned aid, but was not spent for various reasons, including currency conversion difficulties.
Leading US Republicans denounced the deal as ransom payment and sanctions relief. The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, criticized the US government for transferring funds to “the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism”.
Who are American prisoners?
- Morad Tahbaz: Arrested in 2018 along with eight other Iranian conservationists. They used cameras to monitor critically endangered wild Asiatic cheetahs, but were accused of espionage. He denied the charges but was sentenced to 10 years in prison
- Siamak Namazi: Dubai oil executive arrested in 2015. His elderly father, Baquer, was detained the following year after Iranian officials allowed him to visit his son. Both were sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaboration with a foreign enemy”, which they denied. Iran let Baquer go for a medical in 2022
- Emad Shargi: Detained in 2018 while working for an Iranian venture capital fund. Released on bail, he later said he was cleared of espionage charges. Informed by court in 2020 that he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released pending appeal and allegedly detained in 2021 while attempting to illegally cross Iran’s western border
- The other two wish to remain anonymous
The huge relief that some prisoners are finally coming home is tempered by the knowledge that more may be seized in the future. There are still other people with dual citizenship behind bars in Tehran.
“The Iranian government has become a hostage-taking government,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House. “They use people as pawns and that’s part of their influence against the West.”
Qatar hopes this rare cooperation will help speed up progress in other long-running disputes. This includes the 2015 nuclear deal, which many consider dead due to then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw five years ago.
He said Iran will continue to maintain strategic enmity with the United States as long as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in power.
President Biden has long been called on to bring Americans home.
Earlier this year, Siamak Namazi wrote to him from an Iranian prison. Mr Namazi, who the US says was detained unfairly, described himself as holding the “unenviable title of the longest-held Iranian-American hostage in history”.
Morad Tahbaz and his family also felt angry and abandoned after receiving assurances from the British government that they would return to Britain last year, along with two other British-Iranians who had been arbitrarily detained, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori.