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Iran frees Americans in a swap, gets access to oil money, release of Iranians in U.S.

US citizens Siamak Namazi (back), Emad Sharqi (L) and Murad Tahbaz (C) disembark from a Qatari jet upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha on September 18, 2023.
KARIM JAAFAR
/
AFP via Getty Images
US citizens Siamak Namazi (back), Emad Sharqi (L) and Murad Tahbaz (C) disembark from a Qatari jet upon their arrival at the Doha International Airport in Doha on September 18, 2023.

Updated September 18, 2023 at 11:08 AM ET

Five Americans who have been held in Iran for years are on their way to the United States in return for Iranians released from U.S. custody and Tehran's access to $6 billion in frozen oil revenues, according to a senior U.S. official.

The Americans include Siamak Namazi, 51, who was held in Iran since 2015 — nearly all the time in prison — making him the longest-held American at least since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979. In January, he sent a letter from jail to President Biden pleading for help in winning his freedom and announcing a short hunger strike.

The others are Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist, detained in 2018, Emad Shargi, arrested while visiting Iran in 2018, and two other U.S. citizens not publicly named. Tahbaz's wife and Namazi's mother — who had not been allowed to leave Iran — were also flown out, according to U.S. officials.

The deal to free the Americans has been outlined since Aug. 10, when four of them were moved from Iran's Evin prison, known for its harsh treatment of foreigners and political prisoners, to house arrest in a Tehran hotel. U.S. officials say efforts to free the U.S. citizens had been in negotiations through third parties for years.

"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," President Biden said in a statement. "As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return."

Namazi said in a statement: "As a hostage, 2,898 days of what should have been the best days of my life were stolen from me and supplanted with torment. What I want more than anything is assurance that no one else will know the interminable anguish that my family and I experienced. But sadly, many are suffering those miseries right now."

He said Iran "has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals, and commercializing their freedom."

As part of the deal, Iran gets access to nearly $6 billion of its oil revenues that have been frozen in a South Korean bank. That money was transferred to accounts in Qatar, and U.S. officials say it will be monitored to make sure it's used just for humanitarian needs — food, agricultural products, medicine and medical devises — that are not subject to U.S. sanctions.

From left: Emad Shargi, Siamak Namazi and Murad Tahbaz are three of five Americans who were freed from Iranian imprisonment in a trade for billions of dollars in frozen oil revenues.
/ Namazi Family; Facebook
/
Namazi Family; Facebook
From left: Emad Shargi, Siamak Namazi and Morad Tahbaz are three of five Americans who were freed from Iranian imprisonment in a trade for billions of dollars in frozen oil revenues.

The U.S. is also granting clemency to five Iranians or Iranian Americans, most of whom were charged with — or were convicted on charges of — violating sanctions laws. According to previous reporting by the Associated Press, one, Mehrdad Ansari, is an Iranian sentenced to 63 months in prison for obtaining equipment that could be used in missiles or nuclear weapons. Another, Kambiz Attar Kashani, is an Iranian American sentenced in February to 30 months in prison for buying high-tech electronic gear. Some of them also have U.S. citizenship and may be allowed to stay in the U.S.

Critics of the deal in the U.S. have said it sends a message that Iran can benefit by capturing Americans and holding them for ransom. On Aug. 22, three House Republican leaders — Michael McCaul of Texas, Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Elise Stefanik of New York — wrote Biden, saying, "Our citizens deserve answers about why your administration is rewarding an Iranian regime that is targeting Americans overseas and at home."

But the administration says the money already belongs to Iran — paid by South Korea for Iranian fuel — and its use will be monitored and limited to items not under U.S. sanctions. The White House says the funds, held in Qatar, can be cut off again at any time.

Meanwhile, the administration has stressed the importance of getting unlawfully detained Americans back home and says it has not lifted any sanctions on Iran as part of the agreement.

In his statement, President Biden specifically noted the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent kidnapped and held in Iran for the past 16 years.

The president also announced new sanctions on Iran's former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for "involvement in wrongful detentions."

"And," he said, "we will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region."

There have been a number of prisoner deals between the two countries going back to 1981, when Iran released 52 hostages from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in return for the U.S. lifting economic sanctions and unfreezing Iranian accounts.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations made prisoner deals. In 2016, during the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran released Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and four other Americans. The U.S. released seven Iranians from U.S. custody and dropped charges or Interpol red notices for 14 others.

Siamak Namazi was left out of that deal — something he and his family decried.

In 2019, the Trump administration released an Iranian scientist, Massoud Soleimani, who was accused of violating trade sanctions, to get the release of Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University graduate student held in Iran for three years. The following year, Trump also released an Iranian American accused of violating sanctions, coinciding with Iran's release of U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, held in Iran for two years.

The new prisoner swap takes place as there have been contradictory signs about the U.S.-Iran relationship. On one hand, Iran released Siamak Namazi's father, Baquer, in October. He had been held since 2016, when he went to try to help his imprisoned son.

And Iran has reportedly slowed its production of nuclear fuel — which had accelerated since the Trump White House pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

But the U.S. maintains Iran has continued harassing ships with U.S. ties as they pass through the Persian Gulf and the Pentagon recently sent 3,000 sailors and Marines to help protect shipping. In a background briefing Sunday night, a senior U.S. official said the prisoner agreement was not an opening for new indirect talks with Iran but removes an obstacle to eventually resuming talks.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.