Doha, Qatar – Five Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for years were released Monday as part of a prisoner swap deal that gives Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenue frozen under US sanctions, according to a senior diplomat in the region with knowledge of the swap.
The plane carrying the five Americans and two of their relatives took off from Iran and is on its way to Qatar, which helped broker the exchange. Five Iranian nationals held in US custody were also expected to be released as part of the deal. After landing in Doha, the liberated Americans were expected to board a US government plane and fly home to the United States. NBC News first reported on the prisoner swap talks in February.
Days before the Americans were released, Republican lawmakers in Washington condemned the deal, saying it amounted to a “ransom” payment and would only encourage Iran to imprison more foreigners. A similar arrangement in 2015 during the Obama administration, in which Iran was allowed access to frozen funds at the same time as Americans held in Iran were released, was also sharply criticized by Republicans at the time as a capitulation by Tehran.
But the families of the freed Americans say their loved ones were held hostage on trumped-up charges and used as bargaining chips by the Iranian government. Families and some former hostages say the Biden administration had to use whatever leverage it had to secure the freedom of imprisoned US citizens or face the prospect of Americans remaining in prison indefinitely. Past presidents, including Donald Trump, have also participated in prisoner swaps.
A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry said on Monday that of the five Iranians released in the exchange, two plan to return to Iran, one is headed to a third country and two others intend to stay in the US, where they are legal residents. .
One of the Americans, Siamak Namazi, 51, has been imprisoned in Iran for nearly eight years — longer than any other current American detainee. A graduate of White Plains High School in New York and a business consultant with degrees from Tufts and Rutgers, he was arrested and convicted of espionage in 2015 in a trial that lasted just a few hours. His father, Baquer Namazi, was arrested in 2016 while traveling to Iran to visit his son. The elder Namazi was released last year.
Emad Shargi, 59, an Iranian-born businessman from Washington, DC who moved to the US as a young man, was arrested in April 2018. He was released on bail and cleared of all charges in December 2019, but Iranian authorities refused. return his passport. In 2020, he was again accused and convicted without trial of espionage.
Morad Tahbaz, 67, an Iranian-American who also holds British citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2019.
Tahbaz was part of a group of environmental activists conducting research on the endangered cheetah population in Iran.
U.S. officials said the families of the two other released Americans asked that their names remain private.
Human rights organizations say Iran has engaged in hostage-taking for decades and uses foreign prisoners as a tool to exert influence over other governments. The human rights organization also claims that allegations of espionage against American prisoners were unfounded.
Iran denies the allegations and says all prisoners are being treated in accordance with the country’s laws.
The prisoner swap did not include two legal permanent US residents with green cards who remained behind bars in Tehran. One of them, Shahab Dalili, was arrested and imprisoned in 2016 while visiting Tehran for his father’s funeral, according to his family. His wife and children are US citizens living in Virginia. His son recently spent several days outside the State Department demanding that his father be included in the swap.
Jamshid Sharmahd, a software developer living in California, was kidnapped in 2020 during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates and flown to Iran, according to his family. He is a German citizen and now faces the death penalty on charges of so-called “corruption on earth”. But his family says he was only advocating democracy in Iran.
As the first step in the prisoner exchange, five Americans were placed under house arrest on August 10, with their release conditional on the transfer of $6 billion in frozen South Korean oil to Qatar’s central bank. Iran’s use of the freed funds will be overseen by Qatar and will be limited to the purchase of food, medicine or other humanitarian items as permitted by US sanctions.
The Ministry of Finance will monitor the transactions from the account managed by Qatar. US officials have warned that Washington is prepared to freeze funds again if Iran violates US sanctions.
However, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told Lester Holt in an exclusive interview with NBC News that Tehran will decide how to spend the $6 billion. Asked if the money would be used for purposes other than humanitarian needs, he said: “Humanitarian means anything that the Iranian people need, so this money will be earmarked for those needs, and the Iranian government will decide and determine the needs of the Iranian people.” He added that the money will be spent “wherever we need it”.