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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Iran releases 5 Americans as US unfreezes billions in oil revenue for Tehran

President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran speaks in Tehran to mark the 43rd anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 2022.

By Michael D. Shear and Farnaz Fassihi

Five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran were allowed to leave the country earlier this week, President Joe Biden said, after two years of high-stakes negotiations in which the United States agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue and dismiss federal charges against five Iranians accused of violating U.S. sanctions.

The announcement that the Americans took off in a plane from Tehran just before 9 a.m. Eastern, came as Biden and President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran were to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting of world leaders in New York on Tuesday.

The five Americans — some of whom had been held for years in Evin Prison, one of the most notorious detention centers in Iran — flew to Doha, the capital of Qatar, for a Cold War-style exchange with two of the five Iranians. Three others declined to return to Iran, according to U.S. officials. The Americans were given a brief medical checkup in Doha before they boarded a U.S. government plane headed for the Washington area, officials said.

In a statement, Biden said “five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home.” He added that they “will soon be reunited with their loved ones — after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering.”

White House officials said the president held an “emotional call” with the families of the Americans.

The prisoner release was a critical breakthrough in a yearslong standoff over Americans who were imprisoned in Iran. But the terms of the deal have generated intense criticism from Republicans who say that releasing billions in oil revenue amounts to paying a ransom and would lead to the taking of more hostages.

The arrangement also comes as part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to deescalate tensions with Iran, which soared in the years since President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 deal that placed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. But administration officials denied that the deal indicated a major shift in the long-hostile relationship between the United States and Iran.

Top aides to Biden have said financial sanctions and strict monitoring will prevent Iran from spending the money on anything except food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. They acknowledge, however, that the deal might free up money that Iran is already spending on those items for other purposes.

“Joe Biden’s embarrassing appeasement not only makes Iran stronger, it makes America less safe,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter.

Biden administration officials have said the agreement with Iran was the only way to win the release of the five Americans, who the United States said had been wrongfully detained by the Iranians in deplorable conditions.

Siamak Namazi, one of the freed Americans, said in a statement that he had been dreaming of freedom for almost eight years as he experienced “torment” for 2,898 days in prison.

“My heartfelt gratitude goes to President Biden and his administration, which had to make some incredibly difficult decisions to rescue us,” he said.

The Americans — Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz, as well as two others who have not been named at their families’ request — had been jailed on unsubstantiated charges of spying. They had spent the last several weeks in Iran in home detention after Tehran agreed to release them from prison while the $6 billion transfer, a complicated process, was completed.

U.S. officials said Namazi’s mother and Tahbaz’s wife were also on the plane out of Iran. Both women are Americans and had been prevented from leaving the country.

At the same time as the prisoner exchange, the United States informed Iran that it had completed the transfer of about $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue from South Korea to a Qatari bank account.

“This action was taken strictly to address a humanitarian need,” Raisi told journalists in New York on Monday. He added, “These were funds that belonged to the people of Iran.”

Mick Mulroy, a senior Pentagon official in the Trump administration, said Monday that the release of the funds would “likely give countries that incarcerate Americans as political hostages more reasons to do so.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Americans on Monday against traveling to Iran and other countries where the risk of being wrongly detained was high.

“While this group of U.S. citizens has been released, there is no way to guarantee a similar result for other Americans who decide to travel to Iran despite the U.S. government’s long-standing warning against doing so,” he said.

Only some of the Iranians involved in the deal were jailed in the United States, though all of them faced federal charges. Those charges will be dropped under the terms of the deal.

Several of them are permanent residents of the United States. U.S. officials said that two of the jailed Iranians decided to return to Iran on Monday. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said that two would remain in the U.S. and one would return to a third country where he has family.

The Iranians were identified as Kaveh Afrasiabi, 65, who was charged with being an unregistered lobbyist; Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, 48, a dual Iranian Canadian citizen charged with exporting lab equipment for Iran’s nuclear program; Mehrdad Ansari, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for obtaining military equipment; Kambiz Attar Kashani, 45, a dual Iranian American businessperson who pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally export technologies; and Amin Hasanzadeh, who was charged with stealing sensitive technical plans.

Hasanzadeh has said he will return to Iran.

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