By Andrew Mills
DOHA (Reuters) – Five U.S. citizens left Iran and landed in Doha on Monday in a prisoner swap for five Iranians held in the United States and the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds in a rare deal between the long-time antagonists.
“Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement, adding they “will soon be reunited with their loved ones—after enduring years of agony, uncertainty, and suffering.”
It was unclear whether the exchange might bring progress on the many issues that divide the two nations, including Iran’s nuclear program, its support for regional Shi’ite militias, the presence of U.S. troops in the Gulf and U.S. sanctions on Iran.
A plane sent by mediator Qatar flew the five U.S. citizens and two of their relatives out of Tehran after both sides got confirmation the funds had been transferred to accounts in Doha, a source briefed on the matter told Reuters.
A Reuters witness saw the plane land at Doha International Airport.
U.S. officials received the five Americans after they disembarked from the Qatari plane at Doha, the Reuters witness said. Switzerland’s ambassador to Iran accompanied them on the plane to Doha, the witness added.
Earlier, two of the five Iranians landed in Qatar, a U.S. official said. Three have opted not to return to Iran.
The five Iranian Americans – one of whom had been held for about eight years on charges the United States had rejected as baseless – were due to board a U.S. government aircraft in Doha and then fly home to the United States.
The deal, after months of talks in Qatar, removes a major irritant between the U.S., which brands Tehran a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which calls Washington the “Great Satan”.
A senior U.S. administration official said the deal did not change Washington’s adversarial relationship with Tehran, but the door was open for diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program.
“If we see an opportunity, we will explore it but right now, I’ve really nothing to talk about,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. dual citizens released include Siamak Namazi, 51, and Emad Sharqi, 59, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, 67, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality. They were released from prison and put under house arrest last month.
A fourth U.S. citizen was also released into house arrest, while a fifth was already under house arrest. Their identities have not been disclosed.
Iranian officials have named the five Iranians released by the U.S. as Mehrdad Moin-Ansari, Kambiz Attar-Kashani, Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, Amin Hassanzadeh and Kaveh Afrasiabi. Two Iranian officials previously said that Afrasiabi would remain in the United States but had not mentioned others.
(Reporting by Andrew Mills in Doha, Elwely Elwelly in Dubai and Hyonshee Shin in Seoul; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean)