- By Bernd Debusmann Jr.
- BBC News
A plane carrying five Americans imprisoned in Iran for years has landed in the United States after a controversial prisoner exchange.
They landed Tuesday morning at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, just south of Washington DC.
They had previously taken a flight from Tehran to Doha where they were transferred to a plane bound for the United States.
The final element of the deal was put in place on Monday when $6bn (£4.8bn) in Iranian cash – held in South Korea – was sent to banks in Doha.
The released prisoners have dual Iranian and American nationality. Five Iranians were also released by the United States and of them, three chose not to return to Iran.
The plane carrying the five Americans landed at Davison Army Airfield shortly before 5:30 a.m. local time (09:30 GMT) and they had an emotional and tearful reunion with family members on the tarmac.
Friends and family waved small American flags as the group left the plane.
“The nightmare is finally over,” said a relative of one of the freed Americans, Siamak Namazi. “We haven’t had this moment in over eight years. It’s incredible.”
“[It is] the beginning of a very long road to recovery and healing,” added a family representative.
Also on board the plane were two family members, U.S. presidential envoy Roger Carstens and Abram Paley, deputy special envoy for Iran. Both met the released detainees in Doha.
In brief remarks at Fort Belvoir, Mr. Carstens encouraged former detainees to take advantage of “post-isolation support” offered by the U.S. military and expressed confidence that they would “continue the fight to bring back more Americans at their home “.
U.S. officials have long maintained that five detainees in Iran were wrongly imprisoned for political purposes.
The Americans include businessman Mr. Namazi, 51, who spent nearly eight years in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, as well as businessman Emad Shargi, 59, and l ecologist Morad Tahbaz, 67, also a British citizen.
The other two prisoners did not wish to be named.
The five Iranians released as part of the deal were mostly imprisoned in the United States on charges of violating American sanctions.
In a statement Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed the prisoner exchange and said Americans would be reunited with their loved ones “after enduring years of agony, uncertainty and suffering.”
At the same time, Mr. Biden pledged to “continue to impose costs on Iran for its provocative actions in the region.”
“And as we welcome our fellow citizens, I once again remind all Americans of the serious risks of traveling to Iran,” he added. “American passport holders should not go there.”
The president’s comments come as the United States announces new sanctions against former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s Intelligence Ministry.
In a statement, one of the released prisoners, Siamak Namazi, said he “would not be free today, if you all had not allowed the world to forget me.”
“From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I summoned the strength to scream behind the impenetrable prison walls of ‘Evin,’ he added. .
The Iranian funds released under the deal were owed by South Korea to Tehran for oil purchased before the Trump administration’s sanctions in 2019 banned such transactions. The United States said the funds released could only be used for humanitarian purposes.
The return of the money, however, has sparked controversy in the United States and is the subject of strong criticism from some of Mr. Biden’s political opponents.
Several prominent Republicans have expressed concern that Iran would use the money to support proxy groups in the Middle East.
The US government has downplayed these concerns. Last week, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the U.S. Treasury Department had “strict oversight” over the money and that Washington “has the ability to control its use.”
A senior administration official also told reporters that the United States would block the funds if Iran tried to divert them or use them for anything other than humanitarian purposes.