Iran frees five Americans as US unfreezes billions in oil revenue for Tehran | ET REALITY

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Five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran were allowed to leave the country on Monday, President Biden said, after two years of high-stakes negotiations in which the United States agreed to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues and disallow federal charges against five Iranians. accused of violating US sanctions.

The announcement that the Americans took off on a plane from Tehran just before 9 a.m. Eastern time came as Biden and Ebrahim Raisi, the president of Iran, attended the annual U.S. General Assembly meeting of world leaders. United Nations in New York on Tuesday.

The five Americans (some of whom had been held for years in Evin prison, one of Iran’s most notorious detention centers) flew to Doha, the capital of Qatar, for a Cold War-style exchange with two of the five Iranians. Three others refused to return to Iran, according to US officials.

In a statement, Biden said that “five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally returning home.” He added that “they will soon be reunited with their loved ones, after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering.”

White House officials said the president made an “emotional call” with the Americans’ families.

The prisoner release was a decisive development in a years-long standoff over Americans imprisoned in Iran. But the terms of the deal have drawn intense criticism from Republicans, who say releasing billions in oil revenue amounts to paying a ransom and would lead to more hostages being taken.

The deal is also part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to reduce tensions with Iran, which have soared in the years since President Donald J. Trump abandoned the 2015 deal that imposed limits on Tehran’s nuclear program. But administration officials denied that the deal signaled a major change in the long hostile relationship between the United States and Iran.

Biden’s top advisers have said financial sanctions and strict oversight will prevent Iran from spending the money on anything other than food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. They acknowledge, however, that the deal could free up money that Iran is already spending on those items for other purposes.

“Joe Biden’s shameful appeasement not only strengthens Iran, it makes America less safe,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter.

Biden administration officials have said the Iran deal was the only way to secure the release of the five Americans, who the United States said had been unjustly detained by the Iranians in deplorable conditions.

Siamak Namazi, one of the freed Americans, said in a statement that he had been dreaming of freedom for nearly eight years while experiencing “torment” during 2,898 days in prison.

“My sincerest thanks to President Biden and his administration, who had to make incredibly difficult decisions to rescue us,” he said.

The Americans – Namazi, Emad Sharghi and Morad Tahbaz, as well as two others who have not been identified at the request of their families – had been jailed on unfounded espionage charges. They had spent the last few weeks in Iran under house arrest after Tehran agreed to release them from prison while the $6 billion transfer was completed, a complicated process.

U.S. officials said Namazi’s mother and Tahbaz’s wife were also on the plane leaving Iran. Both women are Americans and were prevented from leaving the country.

The Americans underwent a brief medical checkup in Doha before boarding a U.S. government plane bound for Washington, officials said.

At the same time as the prisoner exchange was taking place, the United States informed Iran that it had completed the transfer of about $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues from South Korea to a Qatari bank account.

“This action was taken strictly to address a humanitarian need,” Raisi told reporters in New York on Monday. And he added: “These were funds that belonged to the people of Iran.”

Mick Mulroy, a senior Pentagon official in the Trump administration, said Monday that releasing the funds “would likely give countries that imprison Americans as political hostages more reason to do so.”

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday warned Americans against traveling to Iran and other countries where the risk of being unjustly detained was high.

“Although this group of American citizens has been released, there is no way to guarantee a similar outcome for other Americans who decide to travel to Iran despite the US government’s long warning against doing so,” he said.

The release came two days after the first anniversary of the uprising in Iran that erupted following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s moral police. Hundreds of people were killed in the subsequent government crackdown, including at least 44 minors, and around 20,000 Iranians were arrested, the United Nations estimated. In recent weeks, the government has arrested dozens of people to prevent a new round of protests.

“International attention is now diverted from the horrific human rights situation in the country,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “Coinciding with the anniversary of the uprising in Iran is considered a slap in the face to the Iranian people inside the country and has angered many.”

But officials at Iran’s mission to the United Nations dismissed the criticism, saying the timing of the release of the American detainees was conditional on the $6 billion reaching Doha’s bank account and that Iran did not control that process. .

Only some of the Iranians involved in the deal were jailed in the United States, although all faced federal charges. Those charges will be dropped under the terms of the agreement.

Several of them are permanent residents of the United States. U.S. officials said two of the imprisoned Iranians decided to return to Iran on Monday. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said two would remain in the United States and one would return to a third country where he has family.

The Iranians were identified as Kaveh Afrasiabi, 65, accused of being an unregistered lobbyist; Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, 48, a Canadian citizen with dual Iranian nationality accused of exporting laboratory equipment for Iran’s nuclear program; Mehrdad Ansari, who is serving a five-year prison sentence for obtaining military equipment; Kambiz Attar Kashani, 45, an Iranian-American businessman who pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally export technologies; and Amin Hasanzadeh, accused of stealing confidential technical plans.

Hasanzadeh has said he will return to Iran.

Negotiations to free the Americans from Iran accelerated in the spring, when Brett H. McGurk, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the White House, met with officials in Oman in early May.

In August, after Iran released prisoners under house arrest, U.S. officials said they would not celebrate until the Americans were out of Iran and on friendly soil.

The White House on Monday also announced new sanctions against Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and the country’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for wrongfully detaining Americans in violation of the Levinson Act, named after Bob Levinson, a former agent of the FBI who was believed to be detained by Iran for years before his death.

The Biden administration has made considerable efforts over the past three years to secure the release of Americans detained in other countries.

In March, the United States secured the release of Paul Rusesabagina, a human rights activist detained in Rwanda. In December, Russia agreed to release Brittney Griner, an American basketball star, in exchange for Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms dealer known as the “Merchant of Death.”

But other Americans remain detained. In March, Russia accused Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich of espionage and detained him. Biden has said his administration is working to secure Gershkovich’s release.

In his statement Monday, the president said too many people were being held unjustly in Russia, Venezuela, Syria and other parts of the world.

“We remain unwavering in our efforts to keep faith in them and their families,” he said, “and we will not stop working until we bring home every American held hostage or unjustly detained.”

Julian Barnes contributed reporting from Washington.

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