Creating new perspectives since 2009

US prisoners freed from Iran make emotional return home after swap deal

September 19, 2023 at 3:03 pm

Five citizens of United States who had been imprisoned in Iran have been released and are landed in International Doha Airport in Doha, Qatar, before flying to the United States, as part of a prisoner exchange deal between Iran and United States, on September 18, 2023 [Stringer/Anadolu Agency]

Five Americans freed from Iran made an emotional return to the United States on Tuesday, ending their imprisonment “nightmare”, a day after they were swapped for five Iranians held in the US and the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian funds, Reuters reports.

Coming off the plane, the returning Americans were embraced by family and friends with smiles, laughs, and visible emotion, video footage from the airport showed. One of the returnees briefly waved a small Stars and Stripes handed to him.

“The nightmare is finally over,” said Babak Namazi, speaking with his arm around his returning brother, Siamak, at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The welcome ceremony followed a carefully choreographed exchange, agreed after months of Qatar-mediated talks, that was triggered on Monday when the funds that had been blocked in South Korea were wired, via Switzerland, to banks in Doha.

After the transfer was confirmed, the five US prisoners, plus two relatives, took off on a Qatari plane from Tehran, at the same time as two of the five Iranian detainees landed in Doha on their way home. Three Iranians chose not to go to Iran.

TIMELINE: US-Iran relations from 1953 coup to 2023 detainee swap deal

The deal removes a point of friction between the United States, which brands Tehran a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which calls Washington the “Great Satan”.

But it is unclear whether it will bring the two adversaries, which have been at odds for 40 years, closer on any other issues, such as Iran’s nuclear program and its backing for regional militias or the US military presence in the Gulf and US sanctions.

The freed Americans include US-Iranian dual citizens, Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. Two of them have not been publicly identified.

‘Humanitarian action’ 

US President Joe Biden welcomed the return of the prisoners home in a statement on Monday but his administration also announced fresh US sanctions.

We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region

he said.

Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, who was in New York for the annual UN General Assembly, called the swap a humanitarian action.

It can certainly be a step based upon which, in the future, other humanitarian actions can be taken

he added.

Biden, a Democrat, has faced criticism from Republicans over the deal. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Michael McCaul, a prominent Republican, said the transfer of the $6 billion could encourage Iran to detain more US citizens.

Biden aides say the money belongs to Iran and is being transferred from restricted South Korean accounts to restricted accounts in Qatar, which will monitor the cash to ensure it is spent on humanitarian goods, not items under US sanctions.

Relations between the United States and Iran have been especially bitter since 2018 when then-President Donald Trump pulled out of a deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and toughened US sanctions.

Washington suspects Iran’s nuclear program may be aimed at developing nuclear arms, a charge Iran denies.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, left the door open to nuclear diplomacy, but suggested nothing was imminent.

US analysts were sceptical about prospects for progress, particularly with a US election looming in 2024.

The prisoner swap does likely pave the way for additional diplomacy around the nuclear program this fall, although the prospect for actually reaching a deal is very remote

said Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

READ: US House lawmakers overwhelmingly pass new sanctions on Iran