In a significant development, Iranian authorities have released five American prisoners who are now on their way back to the United States, according to American officials. This comes as part of a prisoner exchange agreement between Iran and the US, which also involves the release of five jailed Iranians and the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets. The negotiations for this exchange have been ongoing for months and have involved back-channel communication between Washington and Tehran.
According to reports, the five Americans took off from Tehran on a jet early on Monday morning. They will first arrive in Doha, Qatar, where they will be handed over to US authorities before being flown back to the US. The names of the released Americans include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz, who had all been sentenced to ten years in prison on espionage charges. The identities of the other two detainees have been kept anonymous at the request of the US officials. Namazi, a businessman aged 51, was arrested in 2015 and had been excluded from previous prisoner swaps under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Shargi and Tahbaz were both arrested in 2018.
Simultaneously, Iran’s Nournews outlet has confirmed the release of five Iranians held in the US. Two of them have already arrived in Qatar and will subsequently travel to Iran, while the remaining three have chosen to remain in the US.
The prisoner exchange agreement also involves the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian assets. US officials have instructed banks in Qatar and South Korea to release this amount, which comprises Iranian oil revenue that had been frozen under US sanctions. This move has caused controversy and raised concerns among Republicans, who argue that it sets a dangerous precedent by encouraging Tehran to capture more Americans for future deals. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, has assured reporters that restrictions will be placed on the released funds to ensure that they can only be used for humanitarian purposes such as food and medicine. Nevertheless, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has stated that Iran will spend the money as it sees fit, asserting the government’s right to have complete access and use it according to its needs.
It is crucial to note that this prisoner exchange and asset release are part of a larger context. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran Nuclear Deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had been signed in 2015. The withdrawal led to the freezing of tens of billions of dollars owed to Iran for oil and other exports in bank accounts worldwide. US President Joe Biden, who took office in January 2021, has expressed his intention to revive the JCPOA; however, progress on this front has been slow.
The release of the American prisoners and the unfreezing of Iranian assets signify a positive development in US-Iran relations. It remains to be seen how this exchange will impact future negotiations and efforts to revive the JCPOA.