Five Americans who had endured a harrowing ordeal in Iranian prisons finally returned to the United States on Tuesday, bringing an end to their nightmarish captivity.
Their release followed a carefully orchestrated exchange involving five Iranians held in the U.S. and the release of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds.
The heartwarming scene at the airport showed the returning Americans being embraced by their families and friends, their faces adorned with smiles, laughter, and visible emotion.
One of them even waved a small Stars and Stripes flag handed to him.
Babak Namazi, his arm around his returning brother Siamak, expressed his relief, saying, “The nightmare is finally over.”
The emotional homecoming took place at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, marking a joyous end to months of uncertainty and anguish.
The exchange had been meticulously negotiated through Qatar-mediated talks, with the trigger being the transfer of the blocked funds from South Korea to banks in Doha via Switzerland.
The five released American prisoners, along with two relatives, departed from Tehran on a Qatari plane while two of the five Iranian detainees landed in Doha on their way back home.
Notably, three Iranians chose not to return to Iran.
This diplomatic breakthrough represents a significant de-escalation between the United States, which has designated Tehran as a sponsor of terrorism, and Iran, which has historically referred to Washington as the “Great Satan.”
Nevertheless, it remains uncertain whether this will lead to improved relations on other contentious issues such as Iran’s nuclear program, support for regional militias, the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, and U.S. sanctions.
The freed Americans include dual citizens Siamak Namazi and Emad Sharqi, both businessmen, and Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist who also holds British nationality.
The identities of the other two individuals have not been publicly disclosed.
While U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed the prisoners’ return, his administration simultaneously announced new sanctions against Iran.
Biden emphasized, “We will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was attending the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, described the swap as a humanitarian action and suggested it could pave the way for future humanitarian gestures.
Critics, particularly Republicans, have voiced concerns about the $6 billion transfer potentially encouraging Iran to detain more U.S. citizens.
Biden’s aides insist that the funds belong to Iran and will be monitored in restricted accounts in Qatar to ensure they are used for humanitarian purposes, not items subject to U.S. sanctions.
While the release of prisoners offers a glimmer of hope for renewed diplomacy, U.S. analysts remain skeptical about the prospects for significant progress, particularly with a presidential election looming in 2024.
Henry Rome of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted that while the prisoner swap might open the door to nuclear diplomacy, the chances of reaching a comprehensive deal appear remote.