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Americans detained in Iran return home after exchange

A group of Americans freed after years of detention in Iran arrived in Washington on Tuesday as part of a deal to release five Iranians accused or convicted of crimes in the United States.

The Americans were greeted by their loved ones who applauded them and rushed to hug them as they stepped off the plane before dawn.

Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz, along with two other American detainees whose identities were kept private at the request of their families, left Qatar on Monday after a first stopover in Doha.

Namazi’s mother and Tahbaz’s wife, who were subject to a travel ban to Iran, were also allowed to leave with the group.

Iranian state media said two of the freed Iranians also transited through Doha before arriving in Tehran.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said two other Iranians would remain in the United States, while the other released Iranian would go to another country.

US President Joe Biden said in a statement that the freed Americans would be reunited with their loved ones “after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering.” He thanked the governments of Qatar, Oman, South Korea and Switzerland “for their tireless efforts to help us achieve this result.”

Biden also warned Americans not to travel to Iran, highlighting the State Department’s warnings about the risk of kidnapping and arbitrary arrest.

“All Americans should heed these words and not expect that their release can be achieved if they do not,” Biden said.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi said Monday’s exchange could be “a step in the direction of humanitarian action between us and America.”

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, he said: “It can certainly help build confidence.”

The deal calls for the United States to authorize the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds frozen under U.S. sanctions from accounts in South Korea to accounts in Qatar. The funds are intended to be used only for Iranian humanitarian purposes, such as food, medicine and agricultural products.

Biden administration officials told reporters that the system is set up in such a way that they are confident that the threat of money being diverted for other purposes is very low and that in the event of diversion, accounts will be blocked.

U.S. citizens Siamak Namazi (right), Emad Sharqi (left) and Morad Tahbaz (center) disembark from a Qatari plane upon arrival at Doha International Airport, Doha, September 18, 2023.

Former US President Donald Trump and some conservative US lawmakers criticized Biden for agreeing to the deal, saying the release of the $6 billion amounted to a “ransom” for the hostages and that the money would allow Iran to help develop its nuclear weapons system and not Iran. be used for humanitarian purposes.

Trump lashed out at Biden last week on the social media site Trump’s Truth, saying the deal sets a “TERRIBLE precedent.”

Senator John Thune said on Facebook that “the United States should continue its relentless efforts to repatriate detained Americans, but Iran will now count pallets of ransoms, putting its leaders in a better position to develop a nuclear weapon and financing terrorists. » The price to pay for freeing American hostages will only increase. »

The White House, however, said the United States was not giving any money to Iran.

“It’s not a payment of any kind. It’s not American dollars. It’s not taxpayer dollars, it’s Iranian dollars that the (Trump) administration allowed them to earn” in sales oil to other countries, the National Security Council spokeswoman said. Adrienne Watson said in a statement.

The five Iranians who participated in the exchange were charged or convicted of nonviolent crimes in the United States and received American pardons. They were identified as Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, Mehrdad Ansari, Amin Hasanzadeh, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani and Kambiz Attar Kashani.

Biden administration officials have said Iranians who do not have legal status in the United States will return to Iran.

Ansari and Kafrani have no legal status in the United States. Afrasiabi and Hasanzadeh are permanent residents of the United States, while Kashani has dual Iranian-American citizenship.

In addition to the prisoner exchange, the United States imposed new sanctions calling on Iran to fully account for what happened to Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran under mysterious circumstances in 2007 and presumed dead.

“The Levinson family deserves answers,” Biden said. “Today, we sanction former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act for their involvement in wrongful detentions. And we will continue to impose costs on Iran for its provocative actions in the region. »

Some information on this story comes from the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.