DOHA, Qatar — Five Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for years were freed Monday as part of a prisoner swap deal that gives Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenues frozen under U.S. sanctions, according to a senior diplomat in the region with knowledge of the exchange.
A plane carrying the five Americans and two of their relatives took off from Iran and is headed to Qatar, which had helped negotiate the exchange. Five Iranian citizens held in US custody were also expected to be released as part of the deal. After landing in the Qatari capital, Doha, the freed Americans were expected to board a U.S. government plane and fly back to the United States. NBC News first reported on the prisoner exchange negotiations in February.
Days before the Americans were freed, Republican lawmakers in Washington criticized the deal, saying it amounted to a “ransom” payment and would only encourage Iran to imprison more foreigners. A similar 2015 deal during the Obama administration, in which Iran was given access to blocked funds while releasing Americans held in Iran, also came under heavy criticism from Republicans as a capitulation to Tehran.
But families of the freed Americans say their loved ones were hostages taken captive on trumped-up charges and used as bargaining chips by the Iranian government. Families and some former hostages say the Biden administration had to use the influence it had available to secure the freedom of imprisoned American citizens, or face the prospect of Americans remaining imprisoned indefinitely. Previous presidents, including Donald Trump, also participated in prisoner exchanges.
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Monday that of the five Iranians released as part of the exchange, two planned to return to Iran, one was headed to a third country and two others intended to remain in the United States, where they have legal residence. . .
One of the Americans, Siamak Namazi, 51, had been imprisoned in Iran for nearly eight years, longer than any of the other current American detainees. A graduate of New York’s White Plains High School and a business consultant with degrees from Tufts and Rutgers universities, he was arrested in 2015 and convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted only a few hours. His father, Baquer Namazi, was detained in 2016 when he traveled to Iran to visit his son. The eldest Namazi was released last year.
Emad Shargi, 59, an Iranian businessman from Washington, D.C. who moved to the United States as a young man, was arrested in April 2018. He was released on bail and acquitted of all charges in December 2019, but the Iranian authorities refused to return his passport. He was charged again in 2020 and found guilty of espionage without trial.
Morad Tahbaz, 67, an Iranian-American who also has British citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2019.
Tahbaz was part of a group of environmental activists conducting research on the endangered cheetah population in Iran.
U.S. officials said the families of the other two freed Americans requested that their names be kept private. Human rights groups say Iran has been involved in hostage-taking for decades, using foreign prisoners as a tool to exert influence over other governments. Human rights groups also say espionage charges against American prisoners were baseless.
Iran denies the accusation and says all prisoners are treated in accordance with the country’s laws.
The prisoner swap did not include two legal permanent residents of the United States with green cards who remained behind bars in Tehran. One of them, Shahab Dalili, was arrested and jailed in 2016 while visiting Tehran for his father’s funeral, according to his family. His wife and children are American citizens living in Virginia. Recently, his son staged a sit-in for days in front of the State Department, demanding that his father be included in the swap.
Jamshid Sharmahd, a software developer living in California, was kidnapped in 2020 during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates and taken to Iran, according to his family. He is a German citizen and now faces the death penalty on charges of so-called “corruption on earth.” But his family says he simply advocated for democracy in Iran.
The prisoner exchange was the culmination of difficult negotiations “over a period of years” in which the United States “flatly rejected” some Iranian demands, a senior administration official previously told reporters.
“When the opportunity was presented to us after persistent and principled diplomacy,” the official said, “that’s when we decided to move forward.”
A senior State Department official said: “We feel like we have a really good agreement. This will bring these Americans home. “This will allow these Americans to be reunited with their loved ones.”
U.S. officials said they had no confidence that Iran would stop detaining Americans or other foreigners, and that was why they were issuing stern warnings against any travel to Iran. “To be frank, no American should travel to Iran for any reason,” the official said.
The senior administration official said the prisoner swap would not fundamentally alter the United States’ strained relations with Iran. “It is important to note that this agreement does not change our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. “We will hold them accountable whenever possible,” the official said.
The official noted that as recently as Friday, the administration introduced new sanctions against Iranian state media, officials and other entities that the United States says contribute to the repression of the Iranian people.
The new sanctions coincided with the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman who died in police custody and whose death sparked a wave of protests against the regime.
The official also defended the terms of the deal, saying the funds unlocked by the United States “are not taxpayer dollars,” but rather Iranian oil revenues that Tehran would only be allowed to use for medicine, food or other humanitarian purchases.
Qatar would oversee the funds under strict rules, the official added. And the Treasury Department will also monitor transactions from the account managed by Qatar. US officials have warned that Washington is willing to freeze the funds again if Iran violates US sanctions.
However, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an exclusive interview that Tehran will decide how to spend the $6 billion. When asked if the money would be used for purposes other than humanitarian needs, he said: “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.” He added that the money will be spent “where we need it.”