The United States and Iran completed a controversial prisoner swap deal on Monday, which also includes the transfer of $6 billion dollars to the Iranian regime from South Korea.
After months of negotiations, five American citizens who had been held hostage in Tehran for years were released to return to the United States. They first boarded a plane from Tehran to Doha, the capital of Qatar, which helped mediate and facilitate the deal. They were received by U.S. diplomats before continuing to a second flight that took them home.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The U.S. said the five were jailed by Iranian authorities on baseless charges of “spying” to be used as pawns for political leverage.
Among the repatriated Americans are Siamak Namazi (51) – a businessman who spent almost eight years in the notorious Evin prison, Emad Shargi (59) – a businessman who was sentenced to 10 years, and Morad Tahbaz (67) – an Iranian-American conservationist who also holds British citizenship and was sentenced for 10 years. The two others have asked the White House not to release their names.
“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return. I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers,” Biden wrote, invoking the name of an American citizen who has been missing for more than 16 years after being abducted in Iran.
The U.S. president added: “Today, we are sanctioning former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act for their involvement in wrongful detentions. And, we will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.”
As part of the exchange, the U.S. has also released Iranian prisoners who have been charged and sentenced in the U.S. for security-related violations. According to Iran International, two out of the five arrived in Tehran on Monday and received a “hero’s welcome.” Two others have asked to remain in the U.S. and a third prisoner will go to a third country, where he will join his family.
In another ongoing negotiation in the deal, Iran has received $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds from South Korea for the sale of oil products. The White House insists that the U.S. is not giving Iran any money directly per the deal.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news conference on Monday that Washington has “absolute oversight” on how the Iranian funds are used, adding they can exclusively serve “humanitarian purposes.” Blinken also noted that he had an “emotional conversation” with the American prisoners following their release.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi was quoted by the Associated Press suggesting that this diplomatic breakthrough could become “a step in the direction of a humanitarian action between us and America.”
“It can definitely help in building trust,” Raisi told journalists.
Yet last week, Raisi told NBC News host Lester Holt that the transferred money will be spent “wherever we need it.”
The Iranian president is currently visiting the U.S. for the UN General Assembly that is underway this week. Anti-regime protesters gathered outside his hotel in New York on Monday.
Critics of the prisoner swap slammed the Biden administration for carrying out “hostage diplomacy.” They warn that this could be the first step towards a new nuclear agreement with Iran, which the White House has been trying to negotiate for a long time.
“This isn’t a $6 billion hostage deal. It’s part of an unlawful $50 billion nuclear deal. The House should pass a joint resolution of disapproval rejecting the new deal and prevent President Biden from releasing more money,” wrote Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Former U.S. President Donald Trump wrote on Truth Social: “This absolutely ridiculous 6 Billion Dollar Hostage Deal with Iran has set a terrible PRECEDENT for the future. Buckel up, you are going to see some terrible things start to happen. The 3 years ago highly respected USA has become a laughingstock all over the WORLD.”
“I brought 58 HOSTAGES home from many different countries, including North Korea, and I never paid anything,” the 45th president continued. “They all understood they MUST LET THESE PEOPLE COME HOME!”
“Toward the end, it got so that countries didn’t even start the conversation asking for money, because they knew they would not get it,” Trump added. “Once you pay, you always pay, & MANY MORE HOSTAGES WILL BE TAKEN. Our grossly incompetent ‘leader,’ Crooked Joe Biden, gave 6 BILLION DOLLARS for 5 people. Iran gave ZERO for 5. He’s Dumb as a ROCK!”
Blinken stressed that the prisoner swap was negotiated separately from talks around the Iran nuclear deal. He insisted this deal is not indicative of any progress on the nuclear front.