Five Americans previously imprisoned by Iran have flown out of the country, part of an exchange with the U.S. government that involved unfreezing nearly $6 billion in Iranian assets and unfreezing five Iranian prisoners detained in the United States.
The five Americans—Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz and two others who have not been identified—departed Tehran’s Mehrabad International Airport on Monday, a Biden Administration official confirmed to the Associated Press.
All five—in addition to two relatives of the detainees—are being flown on a Qatari government jet to Doha, Qatar, where they will then fly back to the U.S., according to CNN.
The five were flown out of Iran shortly after Mohammed Farzin, governor of the Central Bank of Iran, confirmed that $5.9 billion in assets previously frozen in South Korea had been received.
The Treasury Department will monitor how Iran uses its assets—which came from oil revenue—after indicating the money could only be used for humanitarian purposes, another Biden Administration official told CNN.
The unfrozen funds will be held by the Qatar Central Bank, where Qatari officials can regulate access, the New York Times reported.
The exchange includes five Iranian prisoners imprisoned in the U.S., including Kaveh Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Ansair, Amin Hasanzadeh, Reza Kafrani and Kambiz Kashani, while Nasser Kanaani, spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, said Monday that two—including Afrasiabi—will remain in the U.S.
President Joe Biden—who cautioned U.S. citizens from traveling to Iran—celebrated the exchange and called on the Iranian government to give a “full account” of what happened to Bob Levinson, a former FBI special agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, while announcing sanctions on former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for their involvement in wrongful detentions.
Biden said “five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home” after “many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy.”
Former President Donald Trump criticized Biden for the prisoner swap on Truth Social, suggesting Biden was “Dumb as a ROCK” after he “gave” $6 billion in exchange for five prisoners while “Iran gave ZERO” (the funds were frozen Iranian revenue.)
Negotiations between the U.S. and Iran have been ongoing for months, according to ABC News. Sanctions to restrict Iranian economic activity with the U.S. and its allies date back to 1979, when the U.S.-aligned Iranian government was toppled by a theocratic movement, but relations between the two countries have soured since 2018, after the U.S. pulled from a nuclear deal with Iran and others. The prisoner swap follows months of tension after the buildup of U.S. Marines, fighter jets and warships in the Persian Gulf. The White House confirmed that five Americans detained in Iran would be released last month, noting that negotiations for the “eventual release remain ongoing and are delicate.” The U.S. has negotiated with Iran for other prisoner swaps, including a 2016 deal that allowed the release of imprisoned Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans. The U.S. also negotiated a prisoner swap with Russia last year, which included the exchange of WNBA star Britney Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, even as the Russian invasion of Ukraine leaves relations between the two countries at a historic low point.
Because the U.S. and Iran do not have formal diplomatic relations, negotiations for an exchange were mediated by Switzerland, Oman and Qatar, according to the Times.
Ansari and Kefrani were sentenced to 63 months and 30 months in prison, respectively, while the three others are still awaiting trial for charges that range from allegedly stealing engineering plans to failing to register as a foreign agent on Iran’s behalf. The three named American prisoners had received 10-year sentences for spying in Iran, but U.S. officials said they were “unjustly and inhumanely detained.” They were released from prison and moved into house arrest last month.