DOHA: Five Americans and an equal number of Iranians released by the US and Iran in a prisoners’ swap landed in Doha on Monday, after the $6 billion Iranian oil fund long frozen by South Korea under US sanctions was transferred to Iranian accounts in Qatar.
The five, who include a businessman and a conservationist, and who left Iran on a Qatari plane accompanied by two relatives, were freed in exchange for five Iranians held by the United States.
They were greeted on the tarmac before walking in the setting sun to a terminal building, three of them with their arms round each other’s shoulders. One of them, Siamak Namazi, praised US President Joe Biden for ignoring the political backlash and taking the “incredibly difficult decisions” that freed them.
At the same time, two of the Iranian detainees freed by the US landed in Qatar. The other three released by the United States have opted to remain there or in a third country, Tehran said.
The trigger for the exchange was the release of the $6 billion in funds, frozen by US ally South Korea under sanctions against Iran, to the Iranian accounts.
“We hope to have total access to the Iranian assets today,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani told a news conference in Tehran on Monday.
As the prisoners were released, Biden granted clemency to the five Iranians and announced sanctions against Iran’s ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country’s intelligence ministry.
On the occasion, President Biden said, “As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return,” including Bob Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran and is presumed dead. “We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region,” he added.
On the other hand, the five Americans of Iranian descent — all considered Iranian nationals by Tehran, which rejects dual nationality — were released to house arrest when the deal was agreed last month.
They included Namazi, a businessman arrested in 2015 on spying charges which his family has rejected. The others are wildlife conservationist Morad Tahbaz, venture capitalist Emad Sharqi, and two others who wished to remain anonymous.
Last week, the official IRNA news agency identified the five Iranian prisoners, including Reza Sarhangpour and Kambiz Attar Kashani who were accused of violating US sanctions against Tehran while two others Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Amin Hasanzadeh were said to have links to Iranian security forces.
The fifth prisoner, Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, was detained at his home near Boston in 2021 and charged with being an Iranian government agent, according to US officials.
The Biden administration has insisted Iran will only be allowed to use the unfrozen funds to buy food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. Kanani has insisted the money will allow Tehran to “purchase all non-sanctioned goods”, not just food and medicine.
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2023