Iran releases five Americans in prisoner swap deal negotiated by Joe Biden

Five Americans imprisoned in Iran and two of their family members are en route to the United States after they were released in a prisoner exchange the Biden administration negotiated with Tehran.

A plane carrying all seven Americans left Iran Monday morning and stopped briefly in Qatar before departing for the U.S.

The prisoner exchange, while not formally linked to stalled nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran, comes against a backdrop of tensions that routinely push the two countries toward a potential military confrontation. It also comes ahead of a United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York this week, where President Joe Biden and Iranian hardline President Ebrahim Raisi will both speak.

In addition, the prisoner exchange could inject some new tensions in the U.S. presidential race. Republican presidential candidates in recent weeks have blasted the Biden administration's decision to push ahead with the prisoner exchange, arguing it amounts to paying a ransom to a state sponsor of terrorism.

The exchange sets free five Americans who had been accused of being spies or working on behalf of the U.S. government in Iran. The United Nations described their detentions as "arbitrary." The White House has also said the allegations are false.

A senior Biden administration official confirmed that two family members were also on the plane carrying the prisoners back to the United States.

As part of the deal, $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues was released by the Biden administration and five Iranians charged or convicted of non-violent crimes were freed by the United States, according to U.S. officials.

The White House said Biden held "an emotional call" with the families of the seven Americans who are returning home. Each family member who joined the call spoke with the president.

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Three of the American prisoners, all dual U.S.-Iran citizens, are Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz. The identities of the two other Americans have not been released. A senior Biden administration official said those two Americans wish to keep their identities private.

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Also on the plane are Namazi's mother and Tahbaz's wife, both of whom were previously unable to leave Iran.

Businessman Namazi, 51, was arrested in 2015 while visiting his family in Tehran. Sharghi, 59, was detained in 2018 a year after moving to Iran from the U.S. to work for a tech investment company. Environmentalist Tahbaz, 67, who also holds British citizenship, was arrested in 2018 while working on a conservation project in Iran.

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Two of the five Iranians who were freed had been convicted of non-violent crimes while three others were awaiting trial and had not been convicted, two senior Biden administration officials said.

The five Americans were moved from prison to house arrest in an Iranian hotel in an interim step towards their release last month.

The deal emerged after months of indirect negotiations between U.S. and Iranian officials. As part of the deal, the U.S. also released $6 billion in frozen Iranian oil revenues, transferred from banks in South Korea to Qatar, an energy-rich nation on the Arabian Peninsula that is an ally of both nations. The U.S. and Iran have no formal diplomatic relations. The funds are intended to be used for humanitarian purposes only.

In a statement issued Monday, Biden Biden celebrated the release of the Americans and thanked the governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea for their role in facilitating the agreement.

Here's who and what is in the deal, why it's happening now, and why the American public should take an interest.

US citizens Siamak Namazi (C-back), Emad Sharqi (bottom-L) and Morad Tahbaz (bottom-R) disembark from a Qatari jet upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha on Sept. 18, 2023. Five US detainees, three previously identified as Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharqi and two who wish to remain anonymous, released by Iran landed in Doha in a prisoner swap on September 18 after $6 billion in frozen funds were transferred to Iranian accounts in Qatar.

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The five Iranians released by the U.S. are Mehrdad Moein Ansari, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, Amin Hasanzadeh and Kaveh Afrasiabi, according to Al-Monitor.

Three of the Iranians did not want to go back to Iran. Iran state media said one wanted to go to a third country and two will stay in the U.S.

The Biden administration official also said the U.S. government will be issuing new sanctions against Iran's ministry of intelligence and its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, which expands government tools to combat wrongful detentions. The measure was signed into law in late 2020. Levinson, a former FBI agent, disappeared during a visit to an Iranian island in 2007.

What have the U.S. and Iran agreed to?

The U.S. has been freezing Iran's assets and piling on economic sanctions ever since President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018. That deal was aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear activities amid international allegations, which Iran denies, that it's seeking nuclear weapons.

Under the prisoner swap agreement announced early Monday, the U.S. has given the green light to South Korea to effectively pay Iran, through Qatar's banking system, for oil it purchased before the Trump administration imposed sanctions on these types of transactions in 2019. The White House says these funds will be held in restricted accounts in Qatar that will only allow Iran to purchase humanitarian goods such as food, medicine, medical devices and agricultural products, the administration officials said.

If Iran tries to divert the funds or use them for anything other than a limited humanitarian purposes authorized, the Biden administration "will take action to lock up the funds," the official said.

None of the money comes from U.S. taxpayers, according to another senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly, and it is thus not a ransom. Oversight of how the money is used will be provided by the U.S. Treasury, Qatar and aid organizations.

In an interview with USA TODAY ahead of the prisoner swap, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. has been “categoric” that it will control how the funds are used. “They will be for humanitarian purposes. I have no doubt,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

However, Iran's foreign ministry and state media have also appeared to claim that the unfrozen funds in Qatar would be under Tehran's direct and unrestricted control.

"Humanitarian means whatever the Iranian people need. So, this money will be budgeted for those needs, and the needs of the Iranian people will be decided and determined by the Iranian government," Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said in a recent interview with NBC News.

Republicans say the Biden administration is being naïve. Appearing on Fox Business on Sunday, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, pointed to Raisi’s comment and charged that the money would fund “terror proxy operations” and an “offensive system for a nuclear war."

US citizens Siamak Namazi (2nd-L) and Morad Tahbaz (R) are welcomed by people upon disembarking from a Qatari jet upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha on Sept. 18, 2023. Five US detainees, three previously identified as Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Sharqi and two who wish to remain anonymous, released by Iran landed in Doha in a prisoner swap on September 18 after $6 billion in frozen funds were transferred to Iranian accounts in Qatar.

Why is this prisoner swap happening now?

As of late August, at least 59 U.S. nationals were known to be held hostage or wrongfully detained in at least 15 countries, according to the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation's annual “Bringing Americans Home” report. The foundation was started after the kidnapping and murder of an American freelance journalist.

Over the last decade, several Americans detained in Iran have been released and those negotiations have followed a similar pattern in terms of conditions.

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The U.S. and Iran have not had formal diplomatic relations since 1980, a consequence of the nation's Islamic Revolution and a hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

In the decades since tensions have simmered on and off.

Roxanne Tahbaz holds a photograph of her father, Morad Tahbaz, outside the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on April 13, 2022 in London, England. Roxanne Tahbaz, the daughter of Morad Tahbaz, jailed in Iran, says the treatment of her Father and family has been a "betrayal" by the UK government. Tahbaz, 66, a US national in addition to his UK nationality and Iranian family background, is a wildlife conservationist jailed along with seven other conservationists in 2019. He was given a ten-year jail sentence after an unfair trial. He suffers from serious health conditions, including a history of cancer, and the Iranian authorities have prevented him from receiving the medical care he needs. In addition to this his wife, Vida, is also stuck in Iran after the authorities issued her with a travel ban.

That's not about to change.

But Henry Rome, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the Biden administration has been viewing a prisoner swap with Tehran as a "prerequisite to moving forward with Iran," including, eventually "resuming some type of nuclear negotiation."

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He said the prisoner exchange represented a "step in the direction of de-escalation" and that if re-elected President Biden could seek to revive the nuclear deal with Iran and world powers in 2025.

Rome added that while American foreign policy attention may be absorbed with Russia and China right now, as the former wages its war in Ukraine and latter increasingly competes with the U.S. on a range of fronts, he believed that if Americans were to "wake up to a war tomorrow it would most likely be with Iran."

He said this was because of the threat to U.S. forces in the Middle East by Iran-backed militias and because of the "constant friction" that results from U.S. attempts to ensure unimpeded travel through the Strait of Hormuz for oil tankers. Iran's navy has hijacked tankers and harassed U.S. naval ships in this area.

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An unhappy anniversary

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Still, the timing of the prisoner swap may not be entirely coincidental.

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s hardline president, will be in New York this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly, an annual event where 193 UN member states debate war, peace and everything in between.

September 16 also marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested in Tehran by Iran's so-called morality police, allegedly for violating hijab rules.

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Iranians protests the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police in Tehran.
Iranians protests the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained by the morality police in Tehran.

After Amini died in police custody, some of the largest protests in Iran in years erupted. They lasted for months. They were eventually suppressed by Iran's security services in a violent crackdown.

"Iranian authorities are pushing ahead with a range of tactics aimed at breaking the resistance of women. They are bringing economic pain and suffering at a very individual level," said Tara Sepehri Far, a researcher at London-based think tank Chatham House, in a recent online discussion on X, formerly Twitter.

But the anger Amini's death unleashed could be waiting for a new moment to resurface.

"The prisoner release deal will be a huge relief to the long suffering families of the detained," Lauren Rozen, a veteran diplomatic correspondent and Iran expert wrote in her substack newsletter published on Sept. 12

"And it may do a bit to distract from gloomier headlines during Raisi’s New York visit, where he is certain to face protests, at least back home."

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The first Biden administration official, however, said there are no meetings planned or envisioned over the coming week with Iranian officials. But the administration does plan, he said, to talk to allies including Britain, France, Germany and others during the diplomatic gathering in New York.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Iran prisoner swap: 5 Americans released in deal negotiated by Biden