Five American citizens jailed for years in Iran are now en route back to the U.S. as part of a prisoner swap agreement between Tehran and Washington, a senior U.S. government official confirmed to reporters Monday.
The U.S. is also imposing new sanctions on Iran’s ministry of intelligence and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former president, the official said.
The prisoner swap is based on the transfer of $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds, which were earned from the selling of oil to South Korea and blocked there after a tightening in U.S. sanctions on Iran in 2018.
Five Iranians held in the U.S. are set to return to Iran as part of the agreement.
U.S. President Joe Biden said his government was working to “bring home every American held hostage or wrongfully detained.”
In a statement, Siamak Namazi, the longest-serving American prisoner in Iran who was freed, said he experienced the “worst of humanity” while being held in Evin Prison, describing it as a “dystopian United Nations of Hostage.” Namazi urged Biden to call on world leaders at the UN General Assembly this week to start a “game-changing global endeavor” to stop hostage-taking and and “collectively impose draconian consequences” on regimes that do it.
The deal between the U.S. and Iran was brokered by Qatar after months of negotiations and comes amid ongoing tensions over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and human rights record.
Sources in Doha told the Associated Press that the funds had reached Qatari bank accounts.
As part of the deal, the U.S. allowed for $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue to be transferred from South Korea to an account in Qatar, where Iran will be able to access the funds for humanitarian reasons, senior Biden administration officials said.
Five Iranians jailed in the U.S. will also be offered clemency. The individuals were imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, an administration official emphasized.
Under criticism from Republicans, the White House has defended the arrangement, saying that the deal was was not a “payment” or “ransom” using U.S. taxpayer dollars, and that the U.S. had not lifted a single sanction on Iran.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi told NBC News that his government would spend the money ”wherever we need it,” while a State Department spokesperson told the broadcaster that the U.S. government would be vigilant in monitoring where the money went.
Three of the five freed Americans have been identified. They are Namazi; Emad Sharghi, another businessman; and Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who also holds British citizenship.
The five Iranians due to be released are Kaveh Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Moein Ansari, Amin Hassanzadeh, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, and Kambiz Attar Kashani.