NEW YORK — Five American citizens held for years in Iran under what U.S. officials describe as brutal conditions were freed Monday and allowed to fly out of the country, the result of months of secret negotiations, a senior Biden administration official said.
In exchange, Iran will gain access to $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue that has been frozen, and five Iranian citizens imprisoned in the U.S. will be released.
The former prisoners flew in a Qatari government airplane to Doha before continuing to Washington. Several senior Biden administration officials were on hand to greet them in the Qatari capital.
Deemed wrongfully detained by the U.S., they were moved from the notorious Evin prison in Tehran last month to house arrest as the first step in the complicated deal. Among the five was Siamek Namazi, 51, the longest held at eight years.
Others who were freed include Emad Shargi, 59, a businessman like Namazi, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist. The two others, at least one of whom is a woman, have declined to be publicly identified. Shargi and Tahbaz were arrested in 2018.
The three identified men are dual U.S. and Iranian citizens and were imprisoned on what Iran called security-related charges. Namazi’s father, Baquer, was also arrested by Iran in 2016 when he went to visit his son but was released in October on “humanitarian grounds,” Tehran officials said. He is 86 years old and in poor health.
All of the former prisoners were categorized by the U.S. government as “wrongfully detained,” which means a new division within the State Department worked exclusively on securing their freedom.
Once the Americans reached house arrest, the U.S. authorized the transfer of $6 billion, frozen as part of economic sanctions against Iran, from a South Korean bank where the money was being held to a “supervised” bank account in Qatar. Iran will be allowed to use the money only for humanitarian needs, U.S. officials said. The transactions will be monitored, and if Tehran uses the money for terrorism or military purposes, the U.S. will re-freeze funds, the officials said.
The deal is controversial, especially among Republican critics of the Biden administration, who argue that the arrangement will give the Islamic Republic, as well as other governments, incentive to capture Americans and hold them hostage for ransom.
Some critics have also falsely accused the Biden administration of paying off Iran to secure the freedom of the Americans. In fact, the funds were earned by Iran through oil sales several years ago.
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