Five wrongly imprisoned Americans who had been in Iran for an extended period were finally set free on Monday, thanks to a prisoner exchange agreement. This agreement allowed Tehran to access $6 billion in oil revenues that had been frozen due to U.S. sanctions. A senior diplomat in the region, knowledgeable about the exchange, disclosed these developments.
A plane carrying the five liberated Americans, along with two of their relatives, departed from Iran and is currently en route to Qatar. Qatar played a crucial role in facilitating this swap. As part of the deal, five Iranian nationals held in U.S. custody were also expected to regain their freedom. Upon landing in Doha, the released Americans were slated to board a U.S. government plane bound for the United States. These negotiations surrounding the prisoner exchange first came to light through a report back in February.
Prior to the release of the American detainees, Republican lawmakers in Washington vehemently criticized the agreement, characterizing it as a “ransom” payment and expressing concerns that it might encourage Iran to detain more foreigners. A similar arrangement took place during the Obama administration in 2015, during which Iran gained access to blocked funds while Americans held in Iran were released. This earlier exchange had faced intense scrutiny from Republicans who viewed it as a concession to Tehran.
On the other side of the debate, the families of the freed Americans maintained that their loved ones were innocent hostages, falsely charged, and exploited as bargaining chips by the Iranian government. These families, along with some former hostages, argued that the Biden administration needed to leverage available resources to secure the freedom of the wrongfully imprisoned U.S. citizens. Failure to do so would have meant the Americans remaining incarcerated indefinitely. Past presidents, including Donald Trump, have engaged in similar prisoner swaps.
In response to the developments, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that of the five Iranians released as part of the exchange, two planned to return to Iran, one intended to go to a third country, and two others planned to stay in the U.S., where they held legal residence.
Among the American detainees, Siamak Namazi, 51, had suffered the longest imprisonment in Iran, lasting almost eight years. He had graduated from White Plains High School in New York and was a business consultant with degrees from Tufts and Rutgers universities. Namazi was arrested in 2015 and swiftly convicted of espionage in a trial that lasted only a few hours. His father, Baquer Namazi, was arrested in 2016 when he traveled to Iran to visit his son, but he was released last year.
Emad Shargi, 59, an Iranian-born businessman from Washington, D.C., who moved to the U.S. as a young man, was arrested in April 2018. Despite being released on bail and cleared of all charges in December 2019, Iranian authorities refused to return his passport. In 2020, he faced renewed charges of espionage without a trial.
Morad Tahbaz, 67, an Iranian American with British citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 and subsequently convicted of espionage in 2019. He had been involved in environmental research related to Iran’s endangered cheetah population.
U.S. officials and human rights groups have strongly criticized Iran’s practice of hostage-taking, asserting that the espionage charges against the American prisoners lacked any credible foundation. In contrast, Iran has denied these allegations, claiming that all prisoners are treated in accordance with the country’s laws.
It’s important to note that the prisoner exchange did not include two U.S. legal permanent residents with green cards who remained incarcerated in Tehran. One of them, Shahab Dalili, was arrested and imprisoned in 2016 while visiting Tehran for his father’s funeral. His family, who are U.S. citizens residing in Virginia, has been advocating for his release, including a sit-in outside the State Department by his son.
Another detainee, Jamshid Sharmahd, a software developer living in California, was abducted in 2020 during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates and taken to Iran. Sharmahd, a German citizen, is currently facing the death penalty on charges of “corruption on earth,” but his family asserts that his activities primarily involved advocating for democracy in Iran.
As an initial step in the prisoner exchange, the five Americans were placed under house arrest on August 10. Their release was contingent upon the transfer of $6 billion in frozen oil revenues from South Korea to Qatar’s central bank. Qatar will oversee Iran’s use of the released funds, which will be restricted to the purchase of essential items like food and medicine, as allowed under U.S. sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department will closely monitor these transactions, warning that the funds could be frozen again if Iran violates U.S. sanctions.
Despite these provisions, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi asserted in an exclusive interview with Media that Tehran would decide how to allocate the $6 billion. He explained that the money would be budgeted for the Iranian people’s needs, and its use would be determined by the Iranian government, emphasizing the funds’ intended humanitarian purposes.