The United States and Iran reportedly exchanged prisoners on Monday, largely completing a deal that also included President Joe Biden unfreezing $6 billion in Iranian assets that have been held in South Korean banks since former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.
Sources in Qatar confirmed to Reuters on Monday morning that the $6 billion in Iranian assets have been transferred to bank accounts in Doha. Qatar is supposed to monitor the funds and ensure Iran does not use them for military development or terrorism, a restriction Iranian leaders mocked last week as meaningless.
Four of the five American hostages were moved from Iran’s notoriously brutal prisons into house arrest soon after the Biden administration began its bizarre slow-motion rollout of the deal a month ago.
The fifth hostage was already under house arrest at the time.
The Biden administration refused to make statements on the record for weeks, instead leaking details of the hostage deal to friendly media – a strategy presumably intended to minimize controversy from the gigantic payoff to Iran. The administration bizarrely chose September 11 as the day to confirm, via comments to the Associated Press, Iran’s assets would be unfrozen.
The White House released a statement from President Biden on Monday celebrating the release of Iran’s prisoners, but saying nothing about the $6 billion in assets:
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. I am grateful to our partners at home and abroad for their tireless efforts to help us achieve this outcome, including the Governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland, and South Korea.
I give special thanks to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, and to the Sultan of Oman, Haitham bin Tariq, both of whom helped facilitate this agreement over many months of difficult and principled American diplomacy.
The White House called on Iran to release other Americans it is still holding, reminded American citizens that the U.S. State Department has a “longstanding travel warning” about the dangers of visiting Iran, and announced sanctions against former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for their “involvement in wrongful detentions” under the Levinson Act.
“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return. I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers,” the Biden statement said. Levinson was a former FBI agent who disappeared under highly suspicious circumstances in Iran in 2007. U.S. officials said in March 2020 they believe Levinson died in Iranian custody.
According to the BBC on Monday, the U.S. was required to transfer the $6 billion to Qatar before Tehran would release any of its prisoners. The nine rounds of negotiations necessary to seal the deal were described as “difficult” by a BBC source, who said the American and Iranian delegations stayed in separate hotels while senior Qatar officials mediated the agreement.
The Biden administration was also required to grant clemency to five Iranians imprisoned in the United States, identified by the BBC as Reza Sarhangpour, Kambiz Attar Kashani, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Moein Ansari, and Amin Hasanzadeh.
These Iranians and Iranian-American dual citizens were mostly arrested for violating U.S. sanctions, but there are a few other charges pending against them. Mehrdad Ansari was sentenced to 63 months in U.S. prison for helping Iran obtain missile and nuclear weapon equipment, while Kambiz Attar Kashani was serving 30 months in prison for purchasing banned dual-use electronic equipment.
The five American prisoners reportedly include Siamak Namazi, who has been held on trumped-up espionage charges since 2015; venture capitalist Emad Sharghi; and environmental activist Morad Tahbaz, plus two others whose identities have not been released to the public.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said in a press conference on Monday that two of the Iranians released by the United States would return to Iran, while the other three would remain in America. Iranian media reported the two former prisoners returning home were Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Reza Sarhangpour.
“The issue of swap of prisoners will be done on this day and five prisoners, citizens of the Islamic Republic, will be released from the prisons in the U.S. Five imprisoned citizens who were in Iran will be given to the US side reciprocally, based on their will. We expect these two issues to fully take place based on the agreement,” Kanaani said.
“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,” he said, explicitly denying the Biden administration’s assertions that Iran’s use of the funds would be closely monitored and tightly restricted.
Coverage of Kanaani’s press conference on Iranian state television was inexplicably cut off shortly after he made these comments.
The Associated Press (AP) quoted a senior Biden administration official who said all of the American hostages departed Iran on Monday. Flight data suggested they were flying to Doha aboard a Qatari plane, which the former hostages were seen boarding in footage published by Iranian state media.
“Meanwhile, Nour News, a website believed to be close to Iran’s security apparatus, said two of the Iranian prisoners had arrived in Doha for the swap,” the AP added.
Namazi’s mother Effie Namazi and Tahbaz’s wife Vida Tahbaz, both of whom have long been prevented from leaving Iran, were reportedly aboard the plane with the freed hostages.
“After a successful team effort, five innocent Iranian compatriots in American prisons will be free today and two of them will enter Tehran via Doha,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Secretary-General of Iran’s High Council for Human Rights, an agency controlled by the brutal theocracy in Tehran.
“The High Council for Human Rights, alongside the government and the judiciary, will remain determined to uphold the rights of Iranians abroad,” Gharibabadi vowed.
Few additional details about the agreement have been made public, but the Financial Times (FT) on Monday said the U.S. wants Iran to “agree not to target Americans and to cap its uranium enrichment at 60 percent purity, a level below weapons grade.” The U.S. also wants Iran to stop selling drones to Russia for use against Ukraine.
Iran, in turn, allegedly “expects Washington to refrain from imposing additional sanctions that further strangle the economy.”
“The release of Iranian hostages was a key first step for the Biden administration to manage and contain a cascade of crises relating to Iran’s advancing and unconstrained nuclear program in advance of the US election year,” Chatham House Middle East Director Sanam Vakil told FT.
“Moreover, Biden can show that he did live up to his promise of bringing unjustly detained American citizens home,” Vakil added. “The larger issue of the Biden administration’s Iran policy beyond campaign promises and crisis management remains unclear.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in New York on Monday to attend the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group told Al-Monitor on Monday the prisoner swap could “open the door for additional diplomatic engagement” and possibly revive the 2015 nuclear deal, although there has been no official word about Biden meeting with Raisi on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Vaez said the deal would be presented as a “political win” for Biden by “bringing Americans back home,” but also a major political victory for the regime in Tehran, which gained an opportunity to “demonstrate to their own constituents and to their opponents that even their adversaries are dealing with them.”
Vaez said this potent signal that the regime is “here to stay” was much-needed on the first anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish-Iranian woman murdered by the “morality police” of Tehran for wearing her mandatory headscarf improperly. Amini’s death touched off some of the largest and longest uprisings against the Iranian theocracy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.