24 September 2023 :
September 19, 2023 - Five Americans who were swapped for $6 billion in unfrozen assets and five detained Iranians have arrived home in the United States, hailing "freedom" and the end of a "nightmare" after their plane landed outside Washington early on September 19.
They hugged relatives to cheers as they left the Gulfstream 5 jet following their predawn arrival at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.
The five U.S. nationals had first been flown to Doha, where some embraced the U.S. ambassador to Qatar and walked seemingly in high spirits to a building at the airport in anticipation of the flight to the United States.
"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," U.S. President Joe Biden said in a statement as they made their way to the United States.
In New York, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi called the deal to swap a total of 10 individuals along with the assets "a step in the direction of a humanitarian action between us and America" that could "definitely help in building trust."
The agreement took months to clinch and has sparked criticism from some hawkish elements in the United States who think it extends a lifeline to an Iranian regime laboring under tough U.S. sanctions.
The five were expected to land in the United States as soon as late on September 18.
"I would not be free today, if it wasn't for all of you who didn't allow the world to forget me," one of three of the U.S. citizens who have been identified, Siamak Namazi, said in a statement on his behalf.
The freshly released prisoners posed for a group photo with family members saying, "Freedom!"
A Qatari plane had taken off from Tehran carrying the five with two of their relatives, news agencies reported, hours after Nasser Kanaani, a Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the prisoner exchange would occur shortly.
Some $6 billion of Iranian assets once frozen in South Korea is now in Qatar, a key element for the prisoner exchange, added Nasser Kanaani in comments during a news conference aired on state television.
The exchange comes amid a major U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf.
According to the deal, the funds will be kept in accounts in Qatar, a U.S. ally on the Arabian Peninsula and home to a major U.S. military installation. Those funds would be allowed for so-called humanitarian spending, like on food and medicine, already allowed under the sanctions, Washington has said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Qatar, Switzerland, South Korea and Oman for helping make the deal happen. Biden pledged in a statement to keep pressing for “accountability for Iran and other regimes for the cruel practice of wrongful detention.”
Iranian officials had identified five individuals in U.S. custody whom Tehran would like handed over as part the deal.
They include three Iranians -- Mehrdad Ansari, Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani, and Kambiz Attar Kashani -- charged with illegally obtaining advanced or potentially dual-use technology thought to be bound for Iran that has been under tightly reimposed U.S. sanctions since 2018.
Two others -- Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi and Amin Hasanzadeh -- were jailed for failing to register as a foreign agent and stealing engineering plans on behalf of Iran, respectively.
"Out of the five Iranian citizens in America, two will return to Iran, two will stay in America at their own request, and one person will go to a third country at their request," Kanaani said. He did not identify which prisoners would return to Iran and which would not.
The press later obtained further information.
Amin Hasanzadeh, a 46-year-old permanent US resident and engineer in Michigan, was charged in 2019 with stealing confidential documents and technical data from his employer. He was accused of sending them to his brother, who is linked to Iran's weapons industry and the military.
Prosecutors also alleged that the engineer served in the Iranian military and worked at a company linked to "the Iranian government's Cruise Division of Air & Space Organization” – information that he concealed on immigration documents.
At the time of the Iran-US prisoner swap agreement, he was awaiting trial and had said he did not plan to return to Iran.
Kambiz Attar Kashani, an Iranian American dual citizen, was arrested in December 2021 and sentenced to 30 months in prison in February this year by the Brooklyn Federal Court for conspiring to illegally export US goods and technology. He was also fined $50,000. According to the Justice Department, Kashani provided the Central Bank of Iran, an entity that supports organizations that the United States has designated as terrorist groups, and others with US electronic equipment and software that “enabled the Iranian banking system to operate more efficiently, effectively and securely.” Kashani used two companies in the United Arab Emirates as a front to acquire goods from several US technology firms.
Kaveh Lotfolah Afrasiabi, a 65-year-old political scientist and author, was arrested in 2021 at his home in Massachusetts on charges of acting as an unregistered agent of the Iranian government, according to the Justice Department. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public as a neutral and objective expert on Iran,” John C. Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said in a statement at the time. “However, all the while, Afrasiabi was actually a secret employee of the Government of Iran and the Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations (IMUN) who was being paid to spread their propaganda.” At the time of the swap agreement, Afrasiabi was awaiting trial and had said he did not wish to return to Iran.
Mehrdad Ansari, a 42-year-old resident of the United Arab Emirates and Germany, received a five-year prison sentence in 2021 for his involvement in a plan to “obtain military sensitive parts” for the Islamic Republic in violation of the Iranian trade embargo. Court documents indicated that the equipment could have been used to test systems including nuclear weapons, missile guidance and offensive electronic warfare. Ansari chose to return to Iran after serving time in a federal prison in Louisiana.
Reza Sarhangpour Kafrani is a 48-year-old Iranian and Canadian national who lived in Montreal. He was indicted by a US grand jury on several counts, including conspiracy, money laundering and violations of US export laws, according to the Justice Department.
He was accused of exporting laboratory equipment to Iran in August 2021 without proper license. The material, which is controlled for nuclear nonproliferation reasons, was exported through Canada and the United Arab Emirates. At the time of the swap agreement with Iran, Kafrani was awaiting trial.
The freed Americans include Namazi, who was detained in 2015 and was later sentenced to 10 years in prison on internationally criticized spying charges; Emad Sharghi, a venture capitalist sentenced to 10 years; and Morad Tahbaz, a British-American conservationist of Iranian descent who was arrested in 2018 and also received a 10-year sentence. The fourth and fifth prisoners were not identified.
Iran has been accused of taking foreign nationals hostage under the guise of breaking the law to use as bargaining chips. Iranian security forces have taken some 40 foreign nationals into custody during a current wave of unrest, often without revealing any charges.
Iran has been isolated and hit with tightened economic and diplomatic sanctions since then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 from a three-year-old deal between world powers and Iran to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from previous measures aimed at stopping the country from developing its atomic capabilities.
Aside from the diplomatic and economic fallout, observers since then have attributed a series of ship seizures and attacks in the crucial Strait of Hormuz region to Tehran.
Tehran has also cooperated with Russia in the Middle East in addition to supplying Moscow with crucial attack drones to further the Kremlin's war plans in Ukraine.