In a high-profile prisoner exchange between the United States and Iran, five American prisoners and five Iranian detainees have been released, marking a significant diplomatic development.
As part of the exchange, all five American detainees and two of the Iranian prisoners arrived safely in the Qatari capital of Doha.
The American former detainees landed in Doha on Monday, disembarking from a plane at Doha International Airport after their journey from Tehran. Upon arrival, they were warmly received by officials representing both the United States and Qatar.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the airport, noted the visible sense of relief among the former prisoners. He mentioned that their stay in Qatar is expected to be brief, as they will soon continue their journey back to the United States. Khan reported, “There’s a visible sense of actual relief; it’s all smiles now.”
Two of the five Iranians, who were previously imprisoned in the United States, have already arrived in Qatar, en route to Iran. However, the remaining three released Iranians have made different decisions. Two have opted to stay in the United States, while one has chosen to travel to a third country. These decisions come as the five freed Iranians received clemency from US President Joe Biden.
Earlier on Monday, Nasser Kanani, the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, explained that the two Iranians staying in the US did so “due to their history of staying there.” The two individuals returning to Iran were identified by state broadcaster Press TV as Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani.
The prisoner exchange agreement between the United States and Iran has also resulted in the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets held in South Korea, effectively triggering the release of detainees. Kanani expressed satisfaction, stating, “Fortunately, Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released, and God willing, today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation.”
Iran’s central bank chief, Mohammad Reza Farzin, later confirmed the receipt of over 5.5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in Qatar accounts, expressing gratitude for the return of these assets.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi characterized the release of the five American detainees as “purely a humanitarian action” and hinted at the potential for future humanitarian gestures. He made these remarks after arriving in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
In response, President Biden welcomed the return of the five American citizens and expressed gratitude to allies who contributed to their release. In a White House statement, Biden said, “Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi, and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones—after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering.” He acknowledged the efforts of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea in facilitating the release.
However, Biden cautioned U.S. citizens about the risks of traveling to Iran, emphasizing that Washington could not guarantee their freedom should they be detained, reflecting the ongoing diplomatic tensions between the two nations.
Critics have raised concerns about the prisoner exchange, particularly from Republicans and some Democrats, suggesting it may lead to further detentions. Nonetheless, the Biden administration has consistently stated that securing the release of U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad remains a top priority.
In a show of resolve towards Tehran and to address criticism, President Biden announced sanctions on Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its intelligence ministry “for their involvement in wrongful detentions.” Biden reaffirmed a commitment to imposing costs on Iran for its actions in the region.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tempered expectations, indicating that the prisoner exchange may not necessarily lead to a breakthrough in efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018. Blinken told reporters, “We’re not engaged on that, but we’ll see in the future if there are opportunities.”