In a rare diplomatic breakthrough, Iran released 5 Americans detained in the country in exchange for the U.S. freeing 7 Iranians imprisoned on sanctions violations. The prisoner swap comes amid stalled nuclear negotiations between the two adversaries and could pave the way for further talks.
On September 18th, a plane carrying businessmen Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharghi, and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz took off from Tehran bound for Switzerland. Namazi’s elderly father Baquer and Tahbaz’s wife were also released after being barred from leaving Iran. Their identities are being withheld for privacy concerns, but the White House confirmed that 5 Americans imprisoned in Iran are now free.
President Joe Biden celebrated the release, thanking U.S. negotiators as well as allies Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea who facilitated the indirect talks.
“After long negotiations, we have achieved something that the families have waited for a very long time. Their loved ones are finally coming home,” Biden said.
The prisoner release came after 17 months of intense but secretive negotiations through intermediaries. It also coincided with the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where hardline Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will speak.
Republicans Criticize Deal
Some Republicans have been quick to criticize the deal, claiming the U.S. paid a “ransom” by releasing $7 billion in frozen Iranian assets. However, the White House asserts the funds are only for humanitarian purposes like food and medicine.
But families of the freed Americans expressed pure relief, with many praising President Biden’s efforts.
“I’m so grateful for the President for making the return of my brother, Paul, a priority,” said Babak Namazi, Siamak’s brother.
Could Lead to Further Negotiations
While not directly tied to nuclear talks, analysts say the prisoner swap could build momentum towards restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
“The Biden administration has been viewing a prisoner swap with Tehran as a “prerequisite to moving forward with Iran,” including, eventually “resuming some type of nuclear negotiation.” said Henry Rome, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute.
The two nations broke off diplomatic ties in 1980. But with Raisi and Biden both attending the U.N. summit, some observers hope further talks may materialize.
Iran’s economy has cratered under severe U.S. sanctions imposed by Trump. Reviving the nuclear deal would grant Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Americans Held for Years
The freed Americans faced charges of spying and acting against Iran’s national security. Namazi was jailed for over 7 years, while Sharghi and Tahbaz were held for 4 years. All maintain their innocence.
Tahbaz holds U.S., British and Iranian citizenship. Britain also negotiated his release as did the U.N., given his environmental work in Iran.
Their families have advocated tirelessly for their release amid concerns over their health and conditions in Iran’s notoriously harsh prisons.
Other Americans still believed held in Iran include elderly businessman Baquer Namazi, Siamak’s father. Also missing is former FBI agent Robert Levinson who disappeared on an Iranian island in 2007.
With Levinson’s case unresolved, the White House announced new sanctions on Iran’s intelligence ministry and former President Ahmadinejad under a U.S. hostage recovery law.
While celebrations over this rare diplomatic breakthrough continue, the fate of other western prisoners in Iran remains uncertain.