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

The freed Americans include US-Iranian dual citizens Siamak Namazi (right) and Emad Sharqi (left), both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz (centre), an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA/NEW YORK – Five Americans freed from Iran made an emotional return to the United States on Tuesday, ending their imprisonment “nightmare”. It came a day after they were swopped for five Iranians detained in the US and US$6 billion (S$8.2 billion) in Iranian funds was unfrozen in a rare deal between the arch-foes.

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

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

It 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, the Qatari capital.

After the transfer was confirmed, the five US prisoners and two relatives took off on a Qatari plane from Teheran, at the same time that two of the five Iranian detainees landed in Doha on their way home. The other three Iranians chose not to go to Iran.

The plane taking the Americans to the US took off from Doha on Monday.

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.

The deal removes a point of friction between the US, which brands Teheran 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 programme and its backing of regional militias, or the US military presence in the Gulf and US sanctions.

‘Humanitarian action’

US President Joe Biden welcomed the returning prisoners home, but his administration also announced fresh US sanctions.

“We will continue to impose costs on Iran for its provocative actions in the region,” he said on Monday.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, called the swop a humanitarian action. “It can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken,” he added.

Mr 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 US$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 and not items under US sanctions.

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

Washington suspects Iran’s nuclear programme 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 the prospects for progress, particularly with a US election looming in 2024.

“The prisoner swop does likely pave the way for additional diplomacy around the nuclear programme this fall, although the prospect for actually reaching a deal is very remote,” said Mr Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. REUTERS

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