Five American detainees flew out of Tehran and landed in Qatar in a swap for five Iranians held in the United States as part of a deal that saw some $6 billion in Iranian assets unfrozen.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement released on September 18 as the plane carrying the group landed in Doha.
The five Americans “will soon be reunited with their loved ones-after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering,” Biden added.
After the plane slowed to a stop, three of the prisoners - Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz - walked down the ramp and were greeted by the US ambassador to Qatar.
In a statement issued on his behalf, Namazi said: “I would not be free today, if it wasn’t for all of you who didn’t allow the world to forget me.”
“Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of [Tehran’s] Evin Prison,” the statement adds.
Meanwhile, two of the five Iranians landed in Qatar for the swap, a U.S. official told Reuters. Three have opted not to return to Iran.
Earlier, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said that $6 billion of Iranian assets once frozen in South Korea reached Qatar, a key element for the prisoner exchange.
Under the deal, the unfrozen funds will be kept in accounts in Qatar and will only be able to be used for humanitarian goods, such as medicine and food, the United States has said.
Namazi was detained in Iran in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on spying charges. Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years, while Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent, was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence.
The two other released American prisoners have not been identified.
The five individuals in US custody whom Tehran wants handed over as part of the agreement include Mehrdad Ansari, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Kambiz Attar Kashani, who were charged with illegally obtaining advanced or potential dual-use technology thought to be bound for Iran that has been under tightly reimposed US sanctions since 2018. The two others are Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi and Amin Hasanzadeh, who were imprisoned for failing to register as foreign agents and stealing engineering plans on behalf of Iran, respectively.
Western governments have repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of taking dual and foreign nationals hostage for the sole purpose of using them in prisoner swaps or as a bargaining chip in international negotiations.
In his statement, Biden urged Americans not to travel to Iran and demanded more information on what happened to Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who went missing while traveling in Iran in 2007.
He also announced sanctions on former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Ministry of Intelligence.