- By Lyse Doucet
- Chief International Correspondent
Five Americans who have been imprisoned in Iran for years and are widely considered hostages are on their way home to the United States.
The final pieces of a controversial Qatar-brokered transfer were put in place when $6bn (£4.8bn) of Iranian funds reached banks in Doha in South Korea.
It prompted four American men and a woman in Tehran, Iranian citizens, to take off on a chartered flight to the Qatari capital.
They will be met by senior US officials and then taken to Washington.
The Americans include 51-year-old businessman Siamak Namazi, who has spent nearly eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, as well as businessman Emad Sharqi, 59, and environmentalist Morad Tahbas, 67, a British citizen.
The US has said its citizens were imprisoned on baseless charges for political gain.
At the first sign that a deal had been reached, they were moved from Evin to a safe house in Tehran in mid-August.
As part of the transfer, clemency is being granted to five Iranians who have been held in US prisons, mainly on charges of violating US sanctions. Not all of them are expected to return to Iran.
They have been named by Iran as Reza Sarhangpour, Kambis Ater Kashani, Kaveh Lotfola Afrasiabi, Mehrdat Moin Ansari and Amin Hassanzadeh.
“Today, five innocent Americans imprisoned in Iran finally return home,” US President Joe Biden said after their plane landed in Doha.
He said the five had endured “years of agony, uncertainty and suffering”.
Mr Biden also announced new US sanctions for alleged wrongful detention of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry.
Siamak Namasi said in a statement: “I wouldn’t be free today if it wasn’t for all of you who never let the world forget me.
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being my voice when I couldn’t speak for myself and making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison.”
He praised President Biden for “making some incredibly difficult decisions to save us” and for “ultimately putting the lives of American citizens above politics.”
The deal comes after months of backdoor negotiations mediated by Qatar that began in February last year.
At least nine rounds of discussions took place in Doha, a source said. Senior Qatari officials are also stationed between Tehran and Washington.
“I think there’s a little bit of a win for both sides,” Iranian-born Professor Mehran Kamrava, who now teaches at Georgetown University in Qatar, told the BBC.
“For Biden, going into the election, he’s bringing Americans home. For Iran, there’s the release of Iranians in prison in the United States, but that’s six billion. [dollars] That’s a big win.”
Iranian officials have repeatedly announced that they will spend their money as they see fit. But sources involved in the process insist that these funds will be strictly controlled.
“No funds will go into Iran,” they insisted. “Only humanitarian transactions, including food, medicine, and agriculture, will be offered to third-party vendors, transaction by transaction.”
Sources told the BBC that the money was not among Iranian assets frozen by sanctions. Money in South Korea has been available to Tehran for bilateral and non-sanctioned aid, revenues from Iranian oil sales, but has not been spent for various reasons, including currency exchange difficulties.
Leading US Republicans have denounced the deal as ransom and sanctions relief. Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, blasted the US government for diverting funds to “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”.
Who are American prisoners of war?
- Moreth Dahbas: He was arrested in 2018 along with eight Iranian bodyguards. They used cameras to track critically endangered wild Asiatic leopards, but were accused of espionage. He denied the charges but was sentenced to 10 years in prison
- Siamese Prayer: The Dubai-based oil executive was arrested in 2015. His elderly father, Bakr, was detained the following year after Iranian authorities allowed him to visit his son. Both were sentenced to 10 years in prison for “collaborating with a foreign enemy”, which they denied. Iran allowed Bakr to travel for medical treatment in 2022
- Mothers Sharkey: Arrested in 2018 while working for an Iranian venture capital fund. He was released on bail and later said he was acquitted of espionage charges. In 2020 he was reportedly sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia by a court. Released pending appeal, reportedly detained in 2021 while trying to illegally cross Iran’s western border.
- The other two wish to remain anonymous
The enormous relief that some prisoners are finally coming home is tempered by the knowledge that many more may be captured in the future. There are still dual citizens in jail in Tehran.
“The Iranian government has become a hostage-taking government,” said Sanam Vakiel, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “They use people as pawns and that’s part of their influence against the West.”
Qatar hopes this rare cooperation will help spur progress in other long-running conflicts. This includes the 2015 nuclear deal, which many considered dead when US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw five years ago.
He said Iran will continue its strategic rivalry with the US as long as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in power.
President Biden has long been urged to bring Americans home.
Earlier this year, Siamak Namasi wrote to him from an Iranian prison. Mr Namasi, who the US said was unjustly detained, described himself as the “unbelievable degree of the longest-held Iranian-US hostage in history”.
Morad Tahbaz and his family were also outraged and abandoned after promises from the British government that he would return to Britain last year, along with two other arbitrarily detained British-Iranians, Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe and Anoshe Ashuri.