Prisoner exchange in Iran: 5 Americans return to the United States after being released in a complex diplomatic deal

Five American citizens arrested by Iran were released Monday in a complex, high-stakes diplomatic deal reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Biden administration that included… Transferring $6 billion of unfrozen Iranian oil assets Five Iranians facing charges in the United States were released. A plane carrying the Americans landed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, south of Washington, DC, on Tuesday morning.

American prisoners These include Siamak Namazi, Imad Sharqi, and Mourad Tahbaz, who were all sentenced to 10 years in prison on baseless espionage charges. According to US officials, two Americans participating in the agreement – including a former UN employee – wished to remain anonymous.

Family members embrace freed Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Imad Sharqi, who were released in a prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran, as they arrive at Davison Military Airport at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, US, on September 19, 2023.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

A flight carrying US citizens from Tehran landed in Doha, Qatar, shortly before 11 a.m. ET on Monday. They were transferred to US custody and then boarded a plane bound for the Washington, D.C., area. They were accompanied on the plane by US Special Presidential Envoy Roger Carstens and Deputy Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley, who met with the former detainees in Doha.

Each of the freed Americans was greeted by groups of friends and family carrying small American flags on the tarmac at Fort Belvoir. Smiles, kisses and warm hugs as they reunited helped avoid the cold morning air. After 15 minutes, the group moved inside where the celebration continued. Carstens made brief statements in which he welcomed everyone back and encouraged them to continue the fight for others who are still imprisoned in Iran.

From left, Imad Sharqi, Morad Tahbaz, and Siamak Namazi, former prisoners in Iran, exit the Qatar Airways flight that took them from Tehran to Doha, Qatar, on September 18, 2023.

Lujin Ju/AFP

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

Sources familiar with the planning said the Americans are expected to receive US government cellphones to call their families and share news of their freedom before their arrival.

NamaziThe 51-year-old businessman was the longest-serving detainee, having been arrested in 2015 and let go by the Obama and Trump administrations in previous prisoner swaps.

SharjiA businessman and Washington, D.C. resident, and Tahbaz, a British-American citizen and environmental advocate, were both arrested in 2018.

An undated photo showing Imad Sharqi.

Provided by the Sharqi family

Also on board 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.

Sharqi’s sister said that his family received video calls from him upon his arrival in Doha, in which he was “extremely joyful and grateful.”

Jared Gencer, the Namazi pro bono family counselor, told CBS News that the family was overwhelmed with emotion.

“Although the long and unimaginable nightmare of Namazi is over, it is also the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” Genser said in an email statement.

Upon their return to the United States, Americans will be given the option to undergo a support operation at a military hospital at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, to prepare for return after captivity.

Since there have been no official relations between the United States and Iran since 1979, the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, Nadine Olivier, escorted the Americans to the Qatari plane. It has helped monitor the well-being of Americans since they were He was transferred from Evin Prison to house arrest In August, after the Biden administration agreed in principle to the swap.

Before the swap, senior administration officials did not share details about the health conditions of the Americans, but they noted that the Swiss said the Iranians had complied with the living conditions agreed upon for their house arrest. Olivier served as the Biden administration’s eyes and ears on the ground, assuring State Department officials that Americans were on the flight.

Iran released five Americans in a prison exchange on September 18, 2023.

CBS News

Switzerland and Qatar have served as a mediator between the United States and Iran since the minimal diplomatic contact between the two countries that was established as part of the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was cut when the Trump administration exited the agreement in 2015. 2018. Despite The election campaign pledged to revive the agreement, but the Biden administration’s attempts failed. Iranian nuclear development continued.

Mistrust between Washington and Tehran, even in light of the swap, is high. The Biden administration agreed to help Iran reach… $6 billion in Iranian oil assets Which was held in a restricted account in South Korea as an incentive for Tehran to make the swap. Sources familiar with the complex diplomatic deal told CBS News that billions in oil revenues were transferred through European banks in the form of euros to a restricted account in Qatar late Sunday.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani announced on Monday, “We hope to see the full restoration of assets by the Islamic Republic of Iran today, and all of them will be transferred to Iran’s account in a friendly country in the region.” He added: “The Iranian government should have full access to it to use it as it needs.”

The plan was to have the US Treasury deny Tehran access to the funds until the Americans left Iranian airspace. The Biden administration has repeatedly said that the US Treasury will continue to monitor the account in Qatar and restrict the use of funds for humanitarian purposes only.

A Qatari plane carrying five US 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 previously briefed Congress on the deal, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, indicated that the information provided to his staff was not enough for him to defend the administration’s deal.

“Money is obviously fungible,” Warner told “Face the Nation.” “The administration has He said there is a handrail. “I want to get a better description of those guardrails first.”

The Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, is concerned that any financial aid will incentivize 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 funds would be tied up.

Senior administration officials confirmed on Sunday evening that the funds are “severely restricted” and are being transferred through “trusted” banks with “full cooperation” from the Qatari government.

“This is not a payment of any kind,” a senior administration official said Sunday night.

A senior administration official said the money, which South Korea paid to Iran years ago for oil and has since been frozen, will be used only for humanitarian purposes and is limited to food, medicine, medical devices and agricultural products. They stressed that it is not American taxpayer money and no money will go directly to Iranian companies or entities. The official said that if Iran tried to transfer the money, the United States would take action to “seize” the money.

In addition to those billions, Biden agreed to grant clemency to five Iranians who were facing charges in the United States. Iran identified its nationals as Mehrdad Moin Ansari, who was indicted in 2011 and convicted in 2021 on charges of violating economic sanctions with Iran; Amin Hassanzadeh, a Michigan resident, accused of stealing confidential documents from his employer; Kambiz Attar Kashani, a dual U.S. and Iranian citizen, was convicted of conspiring to illegally export goods and technology to Iran; Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, a resident of Canada, who is accused of illegally exporting laboratory equipment through Canada and the United Arab Emirates; Kaveh Lotfollah Afrasiabi, a researcher and permanent resident of the United States who lives in Massachusetts, has been charged with acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government.

The United States has not confirmed the identity of the released Iranians, but administration officials indicated that they were all accused of non-violent crimes. The officials also said that the prison sentences of the convicted Iranians had almost expired.

Afrasiabi told CBS News that he will not return to Tehran, but will remain in Tehran instead. US administration officials said they expect two Iranians who do not have legal status in the United States to return to Iran via Doha.

A senior administration official said the agreement “does not change our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible.”

On Monday, the Biden administration announced new sanctions on the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the swap ends long-term trauma for the families of previously detained Americans. It is also likely to reignite the political debate over whether the previously announced trade benefits the Iranian regime, which is under heavy sanctions, and thus incentivizes more hostage-taking.

“Clearly, we are not at all confident about this practice,” a senior administration official said Sunday night [of taking hostages] “It will end,” he warned Americans that traveling to Iran was a “highly dangerous endeavor.”

In a statement thanking those who worked to secure his freedom, Namazi also urged the Biden administration to work with world leaders to impose consequences that would deter future hostage-taking.

“Mr. President, the story of my eight-year captivity is ultimately a stark reminder that once a rogue state seizes our citizens, we are left with no good options,” Namazi said. He added: “Only if the free world finally agrees to collectively impose tough consequences on those who use human lives as bargaining chips, will the Iranian regime and others like it be forced to make different choices.”

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is scheduled to arrive in New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly, which Biden is also scheduled to attend.

Olivia Gazis, Christine Brown, Bo Erickson and Kaitlyn Yelek contributed to this report.

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