Americans freed from Iran in $6 billion prisoner swap

by MMC
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  • By Lyse Doucet
  • Chief International Correspondent
Legend,

Emad Shargi (2nd left), Siamak Namazi (2nd right) and Morad Tahbaz (right) have landed in Qatar, where they will change planes

Five Americans imprisoned for years in Iran and widely considered hostages are on their way back to the United States.

The final pieces of a controversial Qatar-brokered swap fell into place as $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian funds held in South Korea reached banks in Doha.

That triggered the departure of the four American men and one woman from Tehran, also Iranian citizens, on a charter flight to the Qatari capital.

They were welcomed by senior US officials and will then be flown to Washington.

The Americans include businessman Siamak Namazi, 51, who spent nearly eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, as well as businessman Emad Shargi, 59, and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, also of British nationality.

The United States has said its citizens are being imprisoned on baseless accusations for political purposes.

Video caption,

Watch: Moment five Americans freed from Iran change planes in Qatar

At the first sign that a deal had been reached, they were moved in mid-August from Evin to a safe house in Tehran.

Five Iranians imprisoned in American prisons, mainly for violating American sanctions, also benefit from pardons as part of this exchange. Not everyone should return to Iran.

They were named by Iran as Reza Sarhangpour, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Amin Hasanzadeh.

“Today, five innocent Americans imprisoned in Iran are finally returning home,” US President Joe Biden said after their plane landed in Doha.

He said all five had endured “years of agony, uncertainty and suffering”.

Mr Biden also announced new US sanctions targeting former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry for what he sees as their involvement in unjustified detentions.

Siamak Namazi said in a statement: “I would not be free today, if you all had not allowed the world to forget me.

“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I summoned the strength to scream behind the impenetrable prison walls of ‘Evin.’

He also praised President Biden for making “incredibly difficult decisions to save us” and “ultimately putting the lives of American citizens before politics.”

Image source, all hope for nature/Free the Namazis/NedaSharghi

Legend,

The United States said Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi were imprisoned on baseless charges.

The agreement comes after months of indirect talks mediated by Qatar, which began in February last year.

A source said there had been at least nine rounds of talks in Doha. Senior Qatari officials also shuttled between Tehran and Washington.

“I think there is a small victory for both sides,” Professor Mehran Kamrava, of Iranian origin, who now teaches at Georgetown University in Qatar, told the BBC.

“For Biden, as the elections approach, he brings Americans home and for Iran, there is the release of Iranians imprisoned in the United States, but it is these six billion (of dollars) which represent a big victory.”

Iranian officials have repeatedly said they will spend their money as they see fit. But sources involved in this process insist that these funds will be strictly controlled.

“No funding will go to Iran,” they stressed. “Only humanitarian transactions, including food, medicine, agriculture, paid to third-party sellers on a transaction-by-transaction basis.”

Sources told the BBC that the money was not part of Iranian assets frozen by the sanctions. The money in South Korea, revenue from Iranian oil sales, was available to Tehran for bilateral, unsanctioned aid, but was not spent for a variety of reasons, including difficulties with currency conversion.

Top US Republicans denounced the deal as a ransom payment and sanctions relief. The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, blasted the US government for transferring funds to the “world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism.”

Who are the American prisoners?

  • Morad Tahbaz: Arrested in 2018 with eight other Iranian environmental defenders. They used cameras to track wild Asian cheetahs, a critically endangered species, but were accused of espionage. Charges dismissed but sentenced to 10 years in prison
  • Siamak Namazi: A Dubai-based oil executive was arrested in 2015. His elderly father, Baquer, was arrested the following year, after Iranian authorities allowed him to visit his son. Both were sentenced to 10 years in prison for “cooperation with a foreign enemy,” which they denied. Iran let Baquer leave for medical treatment in 2022
  • Emad Shargi: Detained in 2018 while working for an Iranian venture capital fund. Released on bail, then informed that he had been cleared of espionage charges. Informed by a court in 2020 that he had been convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released before an appeal and reportedly detained in 2021 while attempting to illegally cross Iran’s western border
  • The other two wish to remain anonymous

The enormous relief of knowing that some prisoners are finally returning home is tempered by the knowledge that others could be seized in the future. There are still other dual nationals behind bars in Tehran.

“The Iranian government has become a hostage-taking government,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “They are using people as pawns, and that is part of their leverage against the West.”

Qatar hopes this rare cooperation will help catalyze progress on other long-standing disputes. This includes the 2015 nuclear deal, which many consider dead due to then-US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from it five years ago.

Legend,

Four of the five Americans were transferred from Tehran’s Evin prison to house arrest in August.

He said Iran would continue to maintain a strategic enmity with the United States as long as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained in power.

President Biden has long been urged to bring Americans home.

Earlier this year, Siamak Namazi wrote to him from an Iranian prison. Mr. Namazi, who the United States says was unjustly detained, described himself as having the “unenviable title of the longest-held Iranian-American hostage in history.”

Morad Tahbaz and his family also felt angry and abandoned after receiving assurances from the British government that he would return to Britain last year with two other arbitrarily detained Anglo-Iranians, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori .

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