Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi, who were released during a prisoner swap deal between US and Iran, arrive at Doha International Airport on September 18, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

DOHA:  Five US citizens left Iran and landed in Doha on Monday in a prisoner swap for five Iranians held in the United States and the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds in a rare deal between the long-time antagonists.

“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement, adding they “will soon be reunited with their loved ones”after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering.”

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In a statement, Biden thanked the governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea for their help securing the Americans' release.

"I give special thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad [Al Thani], and to the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, both of whom helped facilitate this agreement over many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy," Biden said.

Biden said the United States would keep piling “costs” on Iran despite a prisoner swap deal.

Biden vows to 'impose costs on Iran' after prisoner swap

Biden confirmed that he was imposing new sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their involvement in “wrongful detentions.”

“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” Biden said in a statement.

Biden said that “as we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return,” including Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran and is presumed dead.

“We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region,” Biden said.

His statement did not mention the granting of clemency to five Iranians jailed or awaiting trial for non-violent crimes, which a US official announced earlier.

Biden has faced severe criticism from his Republican opponents over the deal, which came to fruition after the release of $6 billion in Iranian funds long frozen by US ally South Korea.

He thanked the governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea for their “tireless efforts” to make the deal happen.

Freed prisoner hails Biden

One of five US citizens flown out of Iran on Monday hailed Biden for ignoring the political backlash and carrying out a swap that freed him.

“My heartfelt gratitude goes to President Biden and his administration, which had to make some incredibly difficult decisions,” Siamak Namazi said in a statement.

“Thank you President Biden for ultimately putting the lives of American citizens above politics.”

US citizens Siamak Namazi (with glasses), Emad Sharqi (3rd left) and Morad Tahbaz (centre) are greeted upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport. Image Credit: AFP

But Namazi, who had been detained for eight years, acknowledged there were “no good options” in dealing with the clerical state.

Addressing Biden as he prepared to meet world leaders at the United Nations, Namazi said: “I urge you to initiate a game-changing global endeavor aimed at preventing hostage-taking in the first place.”

“It is only if the free world finally agrees to collectively impose draconian consequences on those who use human lives as mere bargaining chips, that the Iranian regime and its ilk will be compelled to make different choices.

“Sadly, until then, we can anticipate more Americans and others falling victim to state hostage-taking - a horror that, thanks to you, my family and I will strive to put behind us starting today.”

This handout image provided by Nour news agency shows Mehrdad Moein Ansari (left) and Reza Sarhangpour, two Iranian nationals who were detained in the United States and released in a prisoner-swap deal with Iran, posing for a photo at Doha International Airport on September 18, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Iran’s Press TV said two of the five Iranians to be released in the exchange had landed in Doha.  Three have opted not to return to Iran.

The funds’ release triggered an exchange sequence agreed after months of talks between the United States and Iran, who are at odds over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and other issues.

The five Americans with dual nationality are due to fly to Doha and then on to the US. “They are in good health,” an Iranian official briefed on the process said.

Iran’s Foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranians being released would return to Iran while two would stay in the US at their request. One detainee would join his family in a third country, he added.

Who are the prisoners US and Iran are exchanging?
The United States and Iran, arch foes for decades, each released five detainees on Monday as part of a prisoner exchange deal.
The agreement follows months of negotiations involving mediation by Oman and Qatar because Washington and Tehran have no formal diplomatic ties.
Here is a look at the 10 detainees and the process that led to their release.
US CITIZENS: Tehran held in custody at least five Iranian-born US citizens.
The Islamic republic does not recognise dual nationality and has considered them as only Iranian nationals.
One of them, businessman Siamak Namazi, was arrested in 2015 and later sentenced to 10 years for espionage.
The four others include venture capitalist Emad Sharqi, sentenced to 10 years on spying charges, and Morad Tahbaz, who also holds British nationality and was jailed for 10 years for "conspiring with America".
The two remaining former prisoners preferred to remain anonymous.
By August 10, all had been transferred to house arrest at undisclosed locations as an initial step ahead of their release.
They flew from Tehran to the Qatari capital Doha on Monday, joined by two more relatives who are also US citizens.
IRANIAN CITIZENS: Tehran's judiciary reported in August 2022 that "dozens" of Iranian nationals had been detained in the United States.
Last week, Iranian officials said five of them would be released under the deal with Washington.
They include Reza Sarhangpour and Kambiz Attar Kashani, both accused of having violated US sanctions against Tehran.
A third prisoner, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, was detained at his home near Boston in 2021 and charged with being an Iranian government agent, according to the US Justice Department.
Two others included in the deal were said to have links to Iranian security forces.
Mehrdad Moein Ansari, who was extradited from Georgia in 2020, was charged with planning to obtain military parts for Iran, according to the Justice Department.
Amin Hasanzadeh, a dual national, was charged in 2020 with stealing technical data from his employer in the US defence industry and sending it to his brother in Iran, who US media said has ties to the military.
Iranian media said Monday that Ansari and Sarhangpour had arrived in Qatar, ahead of their eventual return to Iran.
Two of the others will remain in the United States at their request, and the other will go to a third country, Iran's foreign ministry said.
PREVIOUS SWAPS: Washington and Tehran have struck similar deals in the past.
In June 2020, Iranian scientist Cyrus Asgari returned to Iran after nearly three years in US detention charged with stealing trade secrets.
Days later another scientist, Majid Taheri, was freed in exchange for Tehran's release of US Navy veteran Michael White who had been detained since July 2018 on charges of insulting Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Taheri, an Iranian-American who had been working at a clinic in Tampa, Florida, was held by US authorities for 16 months over accusations of sanctions violations.
The swaps took place despite heightened tensions after the US president at the time, Donald Trump, in 2018 withdrew from a landmark nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran.
In 2019, Tehran released US academic Xiyue Wang who had been jailed in 2016 for espionage, in exchange for Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani.
Iranian authorities had in early 2016 freed four US citizens in exchange for seven Iranians held in the United States.
The Americans included Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and US Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, both accused of espionage, as well as the Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.
MEDIATION EFFORTS: The United States and Iran severed diplomatic ties in 1980, after the Islamic Revolution toppled the Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and after Iranian students took hostage US embassy staff, who were held for 444 days.
Talks on prisoner exchanges since then have often involved mediation by Switzerland, which represents US interests in Tehran.
Oman, whose mediation helped secure the latest deal, has facilitated since May the release of six European detainees in Iran.
They include Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele, who had been convicted of espionage and spent more than a year in custody.
In exchange, Tehran got back its diplomat Assadollah Assadi who was convicted in a bomb plot and imprisoned in Belgium. -- AFP

Kanaani said the funds, blocked in South Korea after US sanctions on Iran were hardened in 2018, would be available to Tehran on Monday.

Under the deal, Qatar will ensure the cash is spent on humanitarian goods and not items under US sanctions.

The deal will remove a major irritant between the US, which brands Tehran a state sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which calls Washington the “Great Satan”.

But they remain deeply divided on other issues ranging from Iran’s nuclear programme and its influence around the region to U.S. sanctions and America’s military presence in the Gulf.

Shuttle diplomacy

Doha hosted at least eight rounds of talks with Iranian and US negotiators sitting in separate hotels, speaking via shuttle diplomacy, a source previously told Reuters.

The transfer of Iran’s funds under the agreement has drawn criticism from US Republicans who say President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is in effect paying a ransom for US citizens.

The White House has defended the deal.

It was unclear whether the exchange might bring progress on the many issues that divide the two nations, including Iran’s nuclear programme, its support for regional Shiite militias, the presence of US troops in the Gulf and US sanctions on Iran.

A plane sent by mediator Qatar flew the five US citizens and two of their relatives out of Tehran after both sides got confirmation the funds had been transferred to accounts in Doha, a source briefed on the matter told Reuters.

US officials received the five Americans after they disembarked from the Qatari plane at Doha, the Reuters witness said. Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran accompanied them on the plane to Doha, the witness added.

The five Iranian Americans - one of whom had been held for about eight years on charges the United States had rejected as baseless - were due to board a US government aircraft in Doha and then fly home to the United States.

The deal, after months of talks in Qatar, removes a major irritant between the US, which brands Tehran a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which calls Washington the “Great Satan”.

A senior US administration official said the deal did not change Washington’s adversarial relationship with Tehran, but the door was open for diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“If we see an opportunity, we will explore it but right now, I’ve really nothing to talk about,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The US dual citizens released include Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. They were released from prison and put under house arrest last month.

A fourth U.S. citizen was also released into house arrest, while a fifth was already under house arrest. Their identities have not been disclosed.

Iranian officials have named the five Iranians released by the U.S. as Mehrdad Moin-Ansari, Kambiz Attar-Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, Amin Hassanzadeh and Kaveh Afrasiabi. Two Iranian officials previously said that Afrasiabi would remain in the United States but had not mentioned others.