Five US detainees flew out of Iran on Monday in a swap for five Iranians held in the US under a rare deal brokered by Qatar between the arch enemies that also unfroze $6 billion of Tehran's funds.
A Qatari plane took off from Tehran carrying the five with two of their relatives, shortly after the US and Iran received confirmation that the funds had been transferred to accounts in Doha, a source briefed on the matter told Reuters.
Iran's Press TV said two of the five Iranians to be released in the exchange had landed in Doha. There was no independent confirmation, though Iranian officials had said three of those to be freed by the US were not returning to Iran.
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said on Monday that the release of five American detainees by Tehran was "purely a humanitarian action" as they left Iran under a Qatar-mediated deal that involved the release of $6 billion Iranian funds in South Korea.
"This was purely a humanitarian action ... And it can certainly be a step based upon which in the future other humanitarian actions can be taken," Raisi told a group of journalists after his arrival in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly.
The funds' release triggered an exchange sequence agreed after months of talks between the United States and Iran, who are at odds over Tehran's nuclear ambitions and other issues.
The five Americans with dual nationality are due to fly to Doha and then on to the US "They are in good health," an Iranian official briefed on the process said.
"From day one of this Administration, the President and I have made clear that we have no higher priority than the safety and security of US citizens at home and abroad. Under President Biden’s leadership, we have now secured the release of more than 30 wrongfully detained Americans around the world. I am grateful to everyone from the State Department and across the government who worked tirelessly to bring home our US citizens. We will not rest until we have brought home every wrongfully detained American," US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in a press release.
Blinken continues with an appeal for clarification on Bob Levinson, an American abducted from Iran 16 years ago, so far no information is known as to his whereabouts or fate.
Iran's Foreign ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said two of the Iranians being released would return to Iran while two would stay in the US at their request. One detainee would join his family in a third country, he added.
Kanaani said the funds, blocked in South Korea after US sanctions on Iran were hardened in 2018, would be available to Tehran on Monday. Under the deal, Qatar will ensure the cash is spent on humanitarian goods and not items under US sanctions.
The deal will remove a major irritant between the US, which brands Tehran a state sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which calls Washington the "Great Satan."
But they remain deeply divided on other issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program and its influence around the region to US sanctions and America's military presence in the Gulf.
Qatar, a tiny but hugely wealthy Gulf Arab energy producer, has sought to raise its global profile, hosting the soccer World Cup last year and carving out a role in international diplomacy. The Sunni Muslim nation hosts a big US military base but has also forged close ties with Shi'ite Muslim Iran.
Doha hosted at least eight rounds of talks with Iranian and US negotiators sitting in separate hotels, speaking via shuttle diplomacy, a source previously told Reuters.
The transfer of Iran's funds under the agreement has drawn criticism from US Republicans who say President Joe Biden, a Democrat, is in effect paying a ransom for US citizens.
The White House has defended the deal.
The US dual citizens to be 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 US 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 to be released by the US 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.
Ties between Washington and Tehran have been boiling since Donald Trump, a Republican, pulled the US out of a nuclear deal between Iran and global powers when he was president in 2018. Reaching another nuclear deal has gained little traction since, as Biden prepares for the 2024 US election.
As a first step in the deal, Washington waived sanctions to allow the transfer of $6 billion in Iranian funds from South Korea to Qatar. The funds were blocked in South Korea, normally one of Iran's largest oil customers, when Washington imposed sweeping financial sanctions on Tehran and the cash could not be transferred.
US officials received the five freed Americans released by Tehran after they disembarked from a Qatari plane at Doha international airport on Monday, a Reuters witness said.
Five Iranian nationals who were detained in the US have been freed, Iran's Press TV said on Monday, adding that two of them were on their way to Tehran.
Press TV earlier reported the two individuals, named Mehrdad Moin-Ansari and Reza Sarhangpour-Kafrani, had landed in Doha from the United States.
Five US 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.
Earlier on Monday, Iran's foreign ministry spokesperson said that out of the five Iranians, two were returning to Iran, two had asked to remain in the US and another one will go to an undisclosed country to join his family.