Five American citizens detained by Iran were released Monday as part of a high-stakes, complex diplomatic deal brokered between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Biden administration that includedand the release of five Iranians facing charges in the US. The Americans were expected to return to the US and land in the Washington, DC area on Monday night.
include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, who were all sentenced to 10 years in prison on baseless espionage charges. Two Americans involved in the deal – including one former UN worker – spoke on condition of anonymity, according to US officials.
A flight carrying American citizens from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar shortly before 11 a.m. ET on Monday. They have been taken into U.S. custody and are on a plane bound for the Washington, D.C., area where they will be reunited with their families, senior administration officials said.
President Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with the families of the detainees 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 receive US government cell phones so they could call their families to share news of their freedom before their arrival.
The 51-year-old businessman was the longest-held prisoner, having been arrested in 2015 and left behind by both the Obama and Trump administrations in past prisoner exchanges.
a businessman and resident of Washington, DC, and Tahbaz, a British and American national and environmentalist, were both detained in 2018.
Also on board the plane were Namazi’s mother, Effie Namazi, and Tahbaz’s wife, Vida Tahbaz – both of whom had previously been barred from leaving Iran, according to senior government officials.
Shargi’s sister said his family received video calls from him after his arrival in Doha, in which he was “glowing and incredibly grateful”.
Jared Genser, pro bono counsel for the Namazi family, told CBS News the family was overwhelmed with emotion.
“While the Namazis’ long and unimaginable nightmare is over, it is also the beginning of a very long road to healing and recovery,” Genser said in an emailed statement.
After returning to the US, the Americans will be given the opportunity to go through a supportive process at the military hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to prepare for their return from captivity.
Since the US has not had official relations with Iran since 1979, the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Nadine Olivier, accompanied the Americans to the Qatar plane. She has helped monitor the welfare of Americans since their inceptionin August after the Biden administration agreed in principle to the swap.
Ahead of the exchange, senior officials did not provide details on the health of the Americans, but noted that the Swiss said the Iranians were complying with agreed living conditions for their house arrest. Acting as the Biden administration’s eyes and ears on the ground, Olivier confirmed to State Department officials that the Americans were on board the plane.
Switzerland and Qatar have been acting as intermediaries between the US and Iran since minimal diplomatic contact between the two nations established under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was cut when the Trump administration pulled out of the deal in 2015. 2018. Despite campaign promise to renew the deal, the Biden administration’s attempts have failed. Iran’s nuclear development continues.
Mistrust between Washington and Tehran, even amid the swap, is high. The Biden administration agreed to help Iran gain accesswhich were held in a restricted account in South Korea as an incentive for Tehran to carry out the swap. Sources familiar with the complex diplomatic deal told CBS News that the billions in oil revenue were transferred through European banks in the form of euros to a restricted account in Qatar as early as Sunday.
“We hope that today we will see the complete seizure of the property by the Islamic Republic of Iran and that everything will be transferred 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 to use as they see fit.”
The plan was for the US Treasury Department to block Tehran from accessing the funds until the Americans left Iranian airspace. The Biden administration has repeatedly stated that the US Treasury Department will continue to monitor the Qatar account and limit the use of funds to humanitarian purposes only.
The Biden administration briefed Congress on the deal in advance, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, indicated that the information offered to his staff was insufficient to defend the administration’s deal.
“Obviously, money is fungible,” Warner told “Face the Nation.” “The administration has. First I want to get a better description of those mantiles.’
The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, worries that any financial relief will encourage future hostage-taking.
“Whenever 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 funding would be cut.
Senior administration officials reiterated on Sunday night that funds are “strictly limited” and are being moved 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 evening.
Money South Korea paid Iran for oil years ago and subsequently froze is to be used only for humanitarian purposes and is limited to food, medicine, medical equipment and agricultural products, a senior government official said. They emphasized that this is not US taxpayer money and no funds will go directly to Iranian companies or entities. If Iran tries to divert the money, the US will take steps to “freeze” the funds, the official said.
In addition to those billions, Mr. Biden agreed to pardon five Iranians who faced charges in the US. Iran identified its nationals as Mehrdad Meoin Ansari, indicted in 2011 and sentenced in 2021 for violating economic sanctions against Iran; Michigan resident Amin Hasanzadeh, accused of stealing confidential documents from his employer; Kambiz Attar-Kashani, a dual US-Iranian citizen who was convicted of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran; Canadian 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 US permanent resident living in Massachusetts who was accused of acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government.
The U.S. has not confirmed the identities of the Iranians who were released, but administration officials noted that all were charged with non-violent crimes. Officials also said that the prison terms of the two Iranians who were convicted are almost over.
Afrasiabi told CBS News that he would not return to Tehran but would instead remain in the US administration. US administration officials said they expected two of the Iranians, who do not have legal status in the US, to return to Iran via Doha.
A senior administration official said the deal “in no way changes our relationship with Iran. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable whenever possible.”
The Biden administration announced new sanctions on Monday against Iran’s intelligence ministry and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But the exchange will end long-term trauma for the families of previously detained Americans. It is also likely to reignite the political debate over whether the previously announced deal benefits the heavily sanctioned Iranian regime and, in turn, encourages more hostage-taking.
A senior administration official said Sunday night, “Obviously, we are not at all certain that the practice (of holding hostages) will end,” and warned Americans that travel to Iran is an “extremely high-risk endeavor.”
In a statement thanking those who worked to secure his freedom, Namazi also urged the Biden administration to work with world leaders to draw consequences to deter future hostage-taking.
“Mr. President, the story of my eight-year captivity is ultimately a stark reminder that once our citizens are captured by a rogue state, we have no good options,” Namazi said. The Iranian regime and its ilk will only be forced to make other choices if the free world finally agrees to collectively impose draconian consequences on those who use human lives as mere bargaining chips.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is due to arrive in New York this week to address the UN General Assembly, which Mr Biden is expected to attend.
Olivia Gazis, Kristin Brown, Bo Erickson and Caitlin Yilek contributed to this report.