U.S.-Iran Prisoner Swap on Brink of UN Meeting

Released American citizens
Released American citizens land in Qatar. | Image by Office of the Special Envoy for Iran/Twitter

Five U.S. citizens who were held in Iran have been freed as part of a prisoner swap, a deal that included the transfer of $6 billion of frozen Iranian funds by the U.S. that some are calling a ransom payment.

The Americans arrived on a flight from Tehran to Doha, Qatar, on Monday morning. They include Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz, three men of Iranian descent whom Iran accused of spying. Two other Americans, including one female UN worker, asked to remain anonymous, per CBS News.

The five released prisoners will board a flight to Washington, D.C., to be reunited with their families.

Five Iranians in U.S. custody are headed to Iran as part of the swap, as reported by CNN.

The prisoner swap and the transfer of funds are happening against the backdrop of this week’s annual United Nations General Assembly, as previously reported by The Dallas Express. Some observers believe that the timing of the swap is meant to create favorable conditions for U.S. and Iranian officials to engage in talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program during the global gathering in New York City, as reported by Al-Monitor.

The White House released a statement attributed only to two “Senior Administration Officials,” who said the deal “does not change our relationship with Iran in any way. Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism. We will hold them accountable wherever possible.”

“Needless to say, the United States will never allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapon[s], a policy we deliver on through diplomacy or other means, if necessary,” the official continued.

“But it goes without saying that when we have an opportunity to bring American citizens home, we do seek to seize it, and that’s what we’re doing here,” the official added.

Efforts to resolve the hostage case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent believed to have died while in the custody of Iran, are ongoing. In 2020, Congress passed legislation named in his honor to bolster federal resources to bring back Americans held hostage or unlawfully detained abroad.

“The United States will never give up on Bob Levinson’s case. We call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers, and we will continue to take action under the Levinson Act to impose costs on Iran.”

The official also said new sanctions would be placed on Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a penalty for detaining the Americans.

Administration officials have defended the deal, which is being pilloried by critics, particularly for the $6 billion transfer of funds. The White House insists the money is not being handed over to Iran but is being placed in Qatari accounts so that the funds can be monitored, as they may only be used to purchase humanitarian goods, per CNN.

In the White House press call, the unnamed official clarified that the funds are not U.S. taxpayer dollars. The frozen assets were funds that came from South Korea as payment to Iran for oil purchases several years ago.

That did not stop former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from calling out the Biden administration for what he called a ransom payment that will fund the military expenditures of a terrorist state.

“Who would have guessed that Iran would announce a new drone only days after receiving $6b in ransom from the US? We literally provided massive financial support to the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” Pompeo posted on X.

However, advocates for Americans held on foreign soil argue that repatriating Americans should transcend politics.

“We need to do everything we can to get American hostages home. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people will overly politicize the issue,” said artist Isaac Campbell, a university student and advocate for the captives’ return, who spoke with Stars and Stripes.

“I think the mistake people make when they politicize this issue is that they risk turning these American citizens and these human beings into a policy issue and forgetting that they’re people. At the end of the day, these people are fathers. They’re husbands. They’re uncles. They’re real people.”

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