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Iran frees American prisoners as part of exchange deal with Washington

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Five Americans who had been held in Iran, some jailed for years, are on their way home today. It's part of a prisoner swap agreement between Washington and Tehran that was announced in August. Iranians held in U.S. detention are also being released and Tehran will get access to billions of dollars in previously frozen assets. NPR's Peter Kenyon is following the story from Istanbul. Peter, tell us about the Americans who will be getting a taste of freedom today.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, yes, and Washington has confirmed the prisoners are out of Iran. Their journey includes, first, Qatar, then on a U.S. military jet back to the United States. They're expected to get there late tonight. Now, those released include Siamak Namazi. He was arrested in 2015, which makes him the longest-held American in Iran since at least 1979, the year of the Islamic Revolution. Namazi had earlier started a brief hunger strike that subsequently urged President Biden to work for his release.

Now, in addition to Namazi, American Morad Tahbaz is being released. He's a Connecticut businessman and conservationist. He's got citizenship in the U.S., Iran and the United Kingdom. He was arrested while working on a conservation project in Iran in 2018. Another detainee being released is Emad Shargi. He was also incarcerated in 2018 on what the U.S. described as, quote, "bogus" espionage charges.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so what is Iran, then, getting in exchange?

KENYON: Well, Iran gets access to some $6 billion in assets that had been effectively frozen for years in South Korea, in line with sanctions against Iran. The money has been sent to accounts in Qatar. Tehran will also be seeing five Iranians or Iranian Americans released from U.S. prison. There were various charges against them. Some were convicted of obtaining material that could have been used in missiles or possibly in nuclear weapons. Another was sentenced for buying high-tech electronic equipment. A couple of the Iranians may decide to stay in the United States, and at least one wants to go to a third country. That was mentioned today by Iran's foreign minister, who also stated not for the first time that sanctions against Iran, especially those imposed by the European Union, have, quote, "no legal value."

MARTÍNEZ: So what's the reaction to the deal been so far?

KENYON: Well, critics of the deal include some members of Congress, in particular, some House Republicans, who argued that making such a deal simply convinces Iran that it can benefit financially from capturing Americans and basically holding them for ransom. Some are warning this deal only ensures that Tehran will try it again. There have been a number of these swaps with Iran over the years going back to the early years of the Islamic Republic, when Iranian students held U.S. embassy employees hostage for well over a year.

The Biden administration says, as far as the $6 billion is concerned, that money is Iran's. But it will be closely monitored to ensure it's used only for humanitarian purposes in accordance with U.S. sanctions - in other words, to buy things like food and medicine. Now, on the other hand, Iran's foreign minister seems to have a very different idea. He says, quote, "God willing, today the assets will start to be fully controlled by the government and the nation." That is definitely not the U.S. understanding. And the White House says if the money is misused in any way, Iran's access to it could be cut off once again.

MARTÍNEZ: Relations between the U.S. and Iran are pretty much nonexistent. Does this maybe pave the way for improving that or thawing it?

KENYON: Well, I wouldn't really expect that, no. The U.S. is also emphasizing this is not a lead into more negotiations with Iran. In fact, the Treasury Department is already planning to add new sanctions against Iran. Iran had been pushing for talks on the nuclear program to be finalized, but that's not happening. In general, Washington's position seems to be, this isn't a sign of warmer relations and there's no connection with this and further talks with Iran.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.