DOHA, Qatar — Five Americans wrongfully imprisoned in Iran for years were released Monday as part of a prisoner exchange agreement that gives Tehran access to $6 billion in oil revenues frozen under U.S. sanctions, according to a senior diplomat in the region with knowledge of the exchange.
A plane carrying the five Americans and two of their relatives has taken off from Iran and is en route to Qatar, which had helped broker the swap. Five Iranian nationals held in U.S. custody were also expected to be released as part of the deal. After landing in Doha, the freed Americans were expected to board a U.S. government plane and fly home to the United States. NBC News first reported on the prisoner swap negotiations in February.
Days before the Americans were released, Republican lawmakers in Washington blasted the deal, saying it amounted to a “ransom” payment and will only encourage Iran to imprison more foreigners. A similar 2015 arrangement during the Obama administration, in which Iran was given access to blocked funds at the same time Americans held in Iran were freed, also had come under fierce criticism then from Republicans as a capitulation to Tehran.
But families of the freed Americans say their loved ones were hostages taken captive on false charges and used as bargaining chips by the Iranian government. The families and some former hostages say the Biden administration had to use the leverage it had available to secure the freedom of the imprisoned U.S. citizens, or face the prospect of the Americans staying incarcerated indefinitely. Past presidents, including Donald Trump, engaged in prisoner swaps, as well.
A spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Monday that of the five Iranians released as part of the swap, two planned to return to Iran, one was headed to a third country and two others intended to remain in the U.S., where they have legal residence.
One of the Americans, Siamak Namazi, 51, had been imprisoned in Iran for almost eight years — longer than any of the other current American detainees. A graduate of White Plains High School in New York and a business consultant with degrees from Tufts and Rutgers universities, he was arrested in 2015 and convicted of espionage in a trial that only lasted a few hours. His father, Baquer Namazi, was arrested in 2016 when he traveled to Iran to visit his son. The elder Namazi was released last year.
Emad Shargi, 59, an Iranian-born businessman from Washington, D.C., who moved to the U.S. as a young man, was arrested in April 2018. He was released on bail and cleared of all charges in December 2019, but Iranian authorities refused to return his passport. He was charged again in 2020 and convicted of espionage charges without a trial.
Morad Tahbaz, 67, an Iranian American who also holds British citizenship, was arrested in January 2018 and convicted of espionage in 2019.
Tahbaz was part of a group of environmental activists carrying out research on Iran’s endangered cheetah population.
U.S. officials say the families of the two other Americans released requested that their names remain private.
Human rights groups say Iran has been engaged in hostage-taking for decades, using foreign prisoners as a tool to exert leverage over other governments. Rights groups also say the espionage charges against the American prisoners were without foundation.
Iran denies the accusation and says all prisoners are treated in accordance with the country’s laws.
The prisoner exchange did not include two U.S. legal permanent residents with green cards who remained behind bars in Tehran. One of them, Shahab Dalili, was arrested and imprisoned in 2016 while visiting Tehran for his father’s funeral, according to his family. His wife and children are U.S. citizens living in Virginia. His son recently held a sit-in for days outside the State Department, demanding his father be included in the swap.
Jamshid Sharmahd, a software developer living in California, was kidnapped in 2020 during a stopover in the United Arab Emirates and taken to Iran, according to his family. He is a German citizen and is now facing the death penalty on charges of so-called “corruption on earth.” But his family says he merely advocated for democracy in Iran.
As a first step in the prisoner exchange, the five Americans were placed under house arrest Aug. 10 with their release contingent on the transfer of the $6 billion in frozen oil revenues from South Korea to Qatar’s central bank. Iran’s use of the released funds will be overseen by Qatar, and restricted to the purchase of food, medicine or other items for humanitarian purposes as allowed under U.S. sanctions.
The Treasury Department will monitor the transactions from the account managed by Qatar. U.S. officials have warned that Washington is prepared to freeze the funds again if Iran violates U.S. sanctions.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, however, told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an exclusive interview that Tehran will decide how to spend the $6 billion. Asked if the money would be used for other purposes apart from humanitarian needs, he said: “Humanitarian means whatever the Iranian people needs, so this money will be budgeted for those needs, and the needs of the Iranian people will be decided and determined by the Iranian government.” He added that the money will be spent “wherever we need it.”