Five American prisoners and five Iranian prisoners have been released as part of a high-profile prisoner exchange, with all of the Americans and two of the Iranians arriving in the Qatari capital Doha.
The American former detainees walked off a plane on Monday onto the tarmac at Doha International Airport after arriving from Tehran. They were greeted by both US and Qatari officials.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from the airport, said that the former prisoners were not expected to spend long in Qatar, and would soon be on their way home to the US.
“There’s a visible sense of actual relief,” Khan said. “Its all smiles now.”
Two of the five Iranians imprisoned by the US had already arrived in the Gulf state, before they transited on to Iran, where they arrived on Monday evening, according to Iran’s Press TV. The three other released Iranians have decided against returning to Iran, with two staying in the US, and one going on to a third country.
The five freed Iranians have been granted clemency by US President Joe Biden.
Speaking earlier on Monday, Nasser Kanani, the spokesperson for the Iranian foreign ministry, said that the two Iranian former prisoners who had decided to stay in the US had done so “due to their history of staying there”.
The two individuals who returned to Iran were named by Press TV as Mehrdad Moein Ansari and Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani.
US citizens Siamak Namazi (C-with glasses) and Morad Tahbaz are greeted upon their arrival [Karim Jaafar/AFP]
The agreement between the US and Iran has also seen $6bn in Iranian assets held in South Korea unfrozen, triggering the prisoner exchange.
“Fortunately Iran’s frozen assets in South Korea were released and God willing today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation,” Kanaani said earlier.
Iran’s central bank chief Mohammad Reza Farzin later came on state television to acknowledge the receipt of over 5.5 billion euros ($5.9bn) in accounts in Qatar.
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi said the release of five American detainees by Tehran was “purely a humanitarian action”.
“It can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken,” Raisi told a group of journalists after his arrival in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
Meanwhile, Biden welcomed the return of the five US citizens and thanked allies for helping secure their release.
“Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz, Emad Sharghi and two citizens who wish to remain private will soon be reunited with their loved ones – after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering,” Biden said in a statement released by the White House.
“I am grateful to our partners at home and abroad for their tireless efforts to help us achieve this outcome, including the governments of Qatar, Oman, Switzerland and South Korea.”
Biden also reminded US citizens about the risk of travelling to Iran and said Washington could not guarantee their freedom should they be detained.
The prisoner swap is unlikely to lead to a breakthrough in negotiations to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal [Karim Jaafar/AFP]
“American passport holders should not travel there,” he said.
The White House has come under criticism from Republicans and some Democrats for striking the prisoner exchange deal with Tehran, saying that it could lead to further detentions.
Al Jazeera’s Kimberly Halkett said the Biden administration has repeatedly said freeing US citizens imprisoned abroad is a top priority of his presidency.
“Anyone who has a family member in detention would want to see their family member brought home, and that is his top priority. That was the opportunity that was in front of him and so he seized it,” Halkett added.
In a sign that Biden wishes to keep a tough front towards Tehran, and perhaps blunt criticism of the exchange deal, he also announced sanctions on Iran’s former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and its intelligence ministry “for their involvement in wrongful detentions”.
“We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region,” he said in the statement.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken lowered expectations the prisoner swap could lead to a breakthrough in efforts to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew in 2018.
“We’re not engaged on that, but we’ll see in the future if there are opportunities,” Blinken told reporters.
Prisoner exchange includes five Iranians and five Americans, as $6bn in Iranian assets are unfrozen.