Officials say ‘historic’ deal to reunite families has not changed America’s relationship with Iran, amid Republican concerns over ‘ransom-like’ arrangement.
Five U.S. citizens who were released by the Iran regime arrived in Qatar on Sept. 18.
Footage from the airport shows hostages Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi, and Emad Sharghi descending the steps of the plane and being greeted by U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Timmy Davis.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked the Qataris, Swiss, South Koreans, and Omanis for helping in the exchange. He also renewed warnings to U.S. citizens not to travel to Iran; the State Department in July cautioned Americans about the “risk of kidnapping and the arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
The Biden administration had announced earlier in the day that five U.S. citizens detained in Iran and two of their family members had been released.
“We have received confirmation that the five freed Americans and two American family members are wheels up in Tehran and en route to Doha,” a senior administration official stated.
In comments on Sept. 17 ahead of the “historic” consular deal, senior U.S. officials told reporters that Iran was expected to allow seven Americans to fly out of Tehran at 1 p.m. local time, while noting that the “process could still hit unanticipated hurdles.”
One official said that things remain extremely complex and fragile, “as with really anything we do in a country like Iran.”
In return, Iran had moved five U.S. citizens from the notorious Evin Prison to house arrest in a Tehran hotel in August. One of the five, Mr. Namazi, had already been under house arrest since 2022. He was sentenced in 2016 to 10 years in prison on internationally criticized espionage charges alongside his father, Baquer Namazi.
The other American prisoners include Mr. Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years, and Mr. Tahbaz, a British American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence. Two have yet to be identified as they wish to remain anonymous.
All five are dual Iranian American citizens, although Iran doesn’t recognize dual citizenship. The sixth and seventh unnamed individuals are family members of the prisoners who had been banned from leaving Iran.
Iranian American Shahab Dalili, a retired trade ship captain who immigrated to the United States and was arrested in 2014 in Iran when attending his father’s funeral, wasn’t part of the deal.
Baquer Namazi, a former civil servant under Iran’s ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was released from detention by Iran on Oct. 1, 2022. Iran at the time claimed that it was expecting the United States to unfreeze $7 billion of its funds in connection with his release.
However, the Biden administration rejected Iran’s claims.
“Reports from Iranian sources of a transfer of funds related to the release of Baquer Namazi and furlough of Siamak Namazi are categorically false,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson told Reuters.
According to The Associated Press, Mr. Blinken approved the sanctions waivers for the deal earlier this month.
An official said on Sept. 17 that “a skilled group of dedicated interagency experts have spent over a year negotiating” the deal. “When the opportunity arose that we thought to do that was very much in our interests, that’s when we chose to move forward,” he said.
Of the five Iranians being exchanged as part of the deal, two were imprisoned on criminal charges and three are still awaiting trial. Two of them don’t have legal status to be in the United States and are expected to return to Iran through Doha, a U.S. official said. Biden administration officials said on Sept. 17 that it’s unclear if the remaining three individuals charged with crimes would be allowed to remain in the United States.
- Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, an Iranian charged in 2021 with allegedly failing to register as a foreign agent on Iran’s behalf while lobbying U.S. officials on issues such as nuclear policy
- Mehrdad Ansari, an Iranian sentenced to five years and three months in prison in 2021 for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles, electronic warfare, nuclear weapons, and other military gear
- Amin Hasanzadeh, an Iranian and permanent resident of the United States whom prosecutors charged in 2019 with allegedly stealing engineering plans from his employer to send to Iran
- Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, an Iranian charged in 2021 over allegedly unlawfully exporting laboratory equipment to Iran
- Kambiz Attar Kashani, an Iranian American sentenced in February to two years and six months in prison for purchasing “sophisticated, top-tier U.S. electronic equipment and software” through front companies in the United Arab Emirates.
The deal comes as the Biden administration on Sept. 18 announced a set of new sanctions on the Iranian regime.
The new sanctions name Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security and its former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their actions in previously or currently holding hostages or wrongfully detaining U.S. citizens, and continuing lies about FBI and CIA agent Robert Levinson’s whereabouts, a senior administration official told reporters on Sept. 17.
The sanctions are possible under the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act and Executive Order 14078.
Since the Trump administration in 2018 reimposed sanctions on Iran after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, billions in Iranian funds have been frozen in a number of countries, notably China, South Korea, and Japan.
Fund to Be Vetted
The Biden administration’s deal, which Congress was informed of on Sept. 11, will mean that banks from Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Qatar, and South Korea can convert and transfer frozen funds from South Korea to Qatar’s central bank, from which Tehran will then be able to access the funds.
A senior Biden administration official emphasized on Sept. 17 that the funds will be reserved for Iran’s humanitarian purchases and limited to “vetted third party non-Iranian vendors.”
He also stated that Iran wouldn’t get sanctions relief in any deal and that oil revenue would be allowed to go only into restricted accounts to be used for strictly humanitarian purposes.
“This humanitarian channel is consistent with the U.S. government’s long-standing law and policy across administrations that U.S. sanctions do not preclude limited humanitarian transactions for food, agricultural products, medicines, and medical devices,” a second senior official told reporters on Sept. 17.
The Treasury Department has since released a detailed description of the due diligence and monitoring standards that are in place, which are “designed to guard against money laundering [and the] misuse/evasion of U.S. sanctions.”
“If Iran tries to divert the funds or use them for anything other than the limited humanitarian purposes authorized, we’ll take action to lock up funds,” the official said.
However, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told NBC News on Sept. 12 that the unfrozen money “belongs to the Iranian people, the Iranian government, so the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide what to do with this money” and that the funds will go wherever Iran needs them.
Not everyone in Washington is convinced that the Biden administration’s sizable concession to Iran in its prisoner swap and funds release is sending the right signal on U.S. foreign policy.
“There’s NO downside for dictatorships, like Iran or Russia, to take Americans hostage,” Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “With Biden, these regimes always get a good deal in the end, and that’s why they’ll keep doing it.”
Although limited to humanitarian purposes, the $6 billion will give the Iranian regime a much-needed boost for its struggling economy and the growing backlash among its citizens. Critics have also warned that the humanitarian funds could allow Iran to divert resources to support militias active in countries such as Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen.
Russia and Iran also continue to ink new defense agreements, with Iran providing hundreds of suicide drones for use in Ukraine in return for the Russian Federation selling the Islamist regime fifth-generation fighter jets and other advanced capabilities.
Iran Remains ‘Adversary’ State
One senior Biden administration official emphasized to reporters on Sept. 17 that the deal “has not changed our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible.”
“When we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it, and that’s what we’re doing here. The president is making five families whole again; that’s ultimately what this is about,” he said.
On Sept. 15, the Biden administration announced more sanctions against entities connected with the death of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of the country’s morality police, and also those involved in censoring citizens in a countrywide internet shutdown in Iran.
Ms. Amini had been detained for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in violation of laws that require women in public to wear the Islamic headscarf. She died three days later in police custody, which Iranian authorities said was because of a heart attack.
Her death set off protests in dozens of cities across the country of 80 million people, with young women marching in the streets and publicly exposing and cutting off their hair. The government responded with fierce suppression and blamed the protests on foreign interference.
Mimi Nguyen-Ly, Jackson Richman, The Associated Press, and Reuters contributed to this report.
Update: The headline of this article has been updated with more information.