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US prisoners head home in swap as Iranians land in Tehran

September 18, 2023

US and Iranian citizens are home or headed there in a prisoner swap. Qatar brokered the deal that allowed the unfreezing of $6 billion of Tehran's funds to make the trade possible.

USA and Iranian flags are seen in this illustration taken, September 8, 2022.
The long-anticipated prisoner swap was brokered by QatarImage: Dado Ruvic/REUTERS

A long-anticipated prisoner swap between the US and Iran came through on Monday, after the transfer of $6 billion (approximately €5.63 billion) frozen Iranian funds to Qatari banks, news agencies reported.

"Iranian and US officials have been notified by Qatar that all $6 billion has been transferred from Switzerland to bank accounts in Qatar," the French AFP news agency quoted an anonymous source as saying.

The money was initially held in accounts in South Korea. European banks then transferred the money to accounts in Qatar.

South Korea's Foreign Ministry confirmed later Tuesday that funds that had been frozen had been "successfully" transferred to a third country.

How the swap unfolded

After departing Tehran for Doha, five American prisoners are now headed for the US and scheduled to land in Washington within the next several hours. 

"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," US President Joe Biden said in a statement shortly before the US detainees descended the stairs of a Qatari jet in Doha.

Meanwhile, Iranian media reports that two of the five Iranian prisoners involved in the swap had arrived in Tehran Monday via Qatar. The other three do not plan on returning to Iran.

The US granted the five Iranians awaiting trial clemency, a US official was cited by AFP as saying.

Biden announces new sanctions, thanks countries for help in securing releases

Biden imposed new sanctions on Iran's intelligence ministry and former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for their "involvement in wrong detentions."

"We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative action in the region," Biden said in statement.

He thanked the governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea for their assistance in securing the releases.

The deal was brokered by Qatar, which hosted at least eight rounds of indirect meetings between the two countries since March 2022.

People disembark from an Qatar airline plane
Emad Sharghi, Morad Tahbaz and Siamak Namazi, former prisoners in Iran, walk out of a Qatar Airways flight Image: Lujain Jo/AP/picture alliance

Blinken: 'no higher priority' for Biden than freeing Americans 

Among the US citizens released, Siamak Namazi, a businessman held since 2015, praised Biden for ignoring political backlash to make the "incredibly difficult decisions" that freed the five.

"Thank you, President Biden," said his statement, "for ultimately putting the lives of American citizens above politics."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with the Americans by phone after they landed in Doha.

Addressing reporters in New York, where he and Biden are attending meetings at the UN, Blinken said, "It's very good to be able to say that our fellow citizens are free."

"I have no higher priority. The president has no higher priority than making sure that Americans who are unjustly detained anywhere can come home and we will continue that work," said Blinken. "President Biden has demonstrated that he's prepared to make tough and difficult decisions."

What did Iran say?

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani was the first to announce the funds had been released.

"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," the Associated Press news agency quoted Kanaani as saying on Monday.

What are the conditions of the deal?

The deal stipulated the release from Iranian custody of five US citizens with dual nationality, who would be flown back to the US via Doha.

In return, the US would release five Iranians. Two of the detainees would return to Iran, while two more would stay in the US at their request, and the fifth would join his family in an undisclosed country.

The release of the Iranian funds was a key condition. South Korea had blocked the funds, which were due to Tehran through oil sales, under US sanctions imposed after former President Donald Trump withdrew from a landmark nuclear accord.

The unfreezing of the funds has prompted Republicans to criticize US President Joe Biden for what they said was a ransom payment for US citizens. The White House has defended the deal.

Under the deal, Qatar will ensure the cash is spent on humanitarian goods and not items under US sanctions.

Iran Crisis: Deal or war?

rm,rmt,js/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)