Five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran have been freed and flown out of the country, a senior Biden administration official and a Qatari official briefed on the matter have told CNN, as part of a wider deal that includes the US unfreezing US$6 billion ($9.3 billion) in Iranian funds.
The US government has designated all five Americans as being wrongfully detained.
They were being flown on a Qatari government jet to Doha, which left an airport in Tehran on Monday afternoon (late Monday AEST). Two relatives of the detainees were also on board, along with the Qatari ambassador to Tehran.
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The release of the Americans brings to an end a years-long nightmare for those who had been detained. Three of those who are believed to be part of the deal – Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and Siamak Namazi – had all been imprisoned for more than five years. Namazi had been detained since 2015. The identities of the other two Americans are not publicly known.
Siamak Namazi's mother Effie Namazi and Morad Tahbaz's wife Vida Tahbaz – who were previously unable to leave Iran – were also on the flight from Iran to Doha, a second senior Biden administration official said.
After stopping in the Qatari capital, they would travel on to the Washington, DC, area to be reunited with their families, the official said.
Their release represents a significant diplomatic breakthrough after years of complicated indirect negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
The United States and Iran do not have formal diplomatic ties. Relations further plummeted under the Trump administration, when the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and pursued a "maximum pressure" approach to Tehran. In the years since, efforts to constrain Iran's growing nuclear program have been unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, Tehran has continued to perpetrate human rights abuses against its own people. Last year's death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's so-called morality police prompted nationwide protests which were brutally suppressed.
US issuing new sanctions on Tehran
The US will issue new sanctions against Iran following the release. They will target Tehran's Ministry of Intelligence and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, senior administration officials said.
They are the second set of sanctions imposed under an executive order signed by President Joe Biden that seeks to punish organisations or criminals responsible for holding Americans captive.
The deal to free the Americans from Iranian detention "has not changed our relationship with Iran in any way", a senior Biden administration official said.
"Iran is an adversary and a state sponsor of terrorism," the second senior official said.
"We will hold them accountable wherever possible."
"We are focused daily on a policy for the Middle East that combines deterrence with diplomacy to reduce risk of Iran's aggression. It's called de-escalating conflicts through diplomacy wherever possible, and contributing and building a more stable, integrated, prosperous Middle East region," the official described.
"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," they said.
The release is the latest high-profile deal negotiated by the Biden administration to secure the release of Americans deemed wrongly detained abroad following the release of Americans from Russia and Venezuela.
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Under the agreement between the US and Iran, US$6 billion ($9.3 billion) in Iranian funds that had been held in restricted accounts in South Korea was transferred to restricted accounts in banks in Qatar. Iranian and US officials were notified by Qatar on Monday that the transfer had taken place, according to a source briefed on details of the matter.
Sources told CNN the funds came from oil sales that were allowed and placed into accounts set up under the Trump administration. Biden administration officials have stressed that the funds that have been transferred to the accounts in Qatar will only be able to be used by Iran for humanitarian purchases and each transaction will be monitored by the US Treasury Department.
The agreement, which has already prompted criticism from Republicans, also involves the release of five Iranians in US custody.
"We are implementing this arrangement through the establishment of what we are calling the humanitarian channel in Qatar," which is designed to protect against money laundering and misuse of the funds, the second senior administration official said.
The overall contours of the release protest began to crystallise in Doha about seven months ago after years of indirect negotiations. The first tangible public steps under the deal took place about five weeks ago, when four of the Americans were transferred into house arrest. The fifth American was already under house arrest.
As a result, the US had to pursue indirect avenues, relying on partners in the Middle East and Europe including Qatar, Oman, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, all of whom served as interlocutors for the two sides over the course of negotiations.
It was Qatar who served as the key broker for the ultimate deal, as Iranian and US negotiators would gather in separate hotels – within sight of each other – in Doha as Qatari diplomats shuttled back and forth and the details were hammered out.
In the weeks following the transfer into house arrest, US officials stressed that the final discussions were ongoing and sensitive.
Namazi is a dual Iranian-US citizen. His father, Baquer Namazi, was released in order to receive medical treatment in October 2022 after more than six years in detention in Iran.
Shargi, a businessman, and Tahbaz, an environmentalist, were first arrested in 2018. They too are dual Iranian-US citizens.
In March, in an unprecedented interview with CNN from inside Evin Prison, Namazi made an emotional plea to Biden to put the "liberty of innocent Americans above politics" and ramp up efforts to secure his release.
Namazi's family, as well as the Shargi and Tahbaz families, had made urgent calls for the Biden administration to intensify efforts to bring their loved ones home.