WASHINGTON – Five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran were allowed to leave the country on Monday, US President Joe Biden said, after two years of high-stakes negotiations in which the United States agreed to unfreeze US$6 billion (S$8.18 billion) in Iranian oil revenue and dismiss federal charges against five Iranians accused of violating US sanctions.
The announcement that the Americans took off in a plane from Teheran just before 9am Eastern time (9pm Singapore time), came as Mr Biden and President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran were to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting of world leaders in New York on Tuesday.
The five Americans – some of whom had been held for years in Evin Prison, one of the most notorious detention centres in Iran – flew to Doha for a Cold War-style exchange with two of the five Iranians. Three others declined to return to Iran, according to US officials.
In a statement, Mr Biden said “five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming 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 held an “emotional call” with the families of the Americans.
The prisoner release was a critical breakthrough in a years-long standoff over Americans who were imprisoned in Iran. But the terms of the deal have generated intense criticism from Republicans who say that releasing billions in oil revenue amounts to paying a ransom and would lead to the taking of more hostages.
The arrangement also comes as part of a larger effort by the Biden administration to de-escalate tensions with Iran, which soared in the years since President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 deal that placed limits on Teheran’s nuclear programme. But administration officials denied that the deal indicated a major shift in the long-hostile relationship between the United States and Iran.
Top aides to Mr Biden have said financial sanctions and strict monitoring will prevent Iran from spending the money on anything except food, medicine and other humanitarian goods. They acknowledge, however, that the deal might free up money that Iran is already spending on those items for other purposes.
“Joe Biden’s embarrassing appeasement not only makes Iran stronger, it makes America less safe,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton wrote on X, the social media platform formerly called Twitter.
Biden administration officials have said the agreement with Iran was the only way to win the release of the five Americans, whom the United States said had been wrongfully detained by the Iranians in deplorable conditions.
Mr Siamak Namazi, one of the freed Americans, said in a statement that he had been dreaming of freedom for almost eight years as he experienced “torment” for 2,898 days in prison.
“My heartfelt gratitude goes to President Biden and his administration, which had to make some 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 named at their families’ request – had been jailed on unsubstantiated charges of spying. They had spent the last several weeks in Iran in home detention after Teheran agreed to release them from prison while the US$6 billion transfer, a complicated process, was completed.
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