The five American citizens being released in a prisoner exchange with Iran are on their way to the U.S., White House officials have confirmed.
The five Americans and two family members arrived in Doha, Qatar, on Monday after leaving Iran. White House officials touted the move as President Biden reuniting families. In the exchange, the U.S. offered up five Iranian prisoners and returned $6 billion in frozen funds for use in Iran.
“The president is making five families whole again,” a White House official said Sunday night.
The frozen funds arrived to Qatar on Sunday night, which triggered Iran’s release. Qatar is serving as an intermediary for negotiations between the U.S. and Iran.
Biden marked the exchange in a statement on Monday, explaining that the two unidentified Americans have requested that their identities not be revealed.
“As we celebrate the return of these Americans, we also remember those who did not return. I call on the Iranian regime to give a full account of what happened to Bob Levinson. The Levinson family deserves answers,” Biden wrote. “Today, we are sanctioning former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence under the Levinson Act for their involvement in wrongful detentions. And, we will continue to impose costs on Iran for their provocative actions in the region.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a news conference on the release later Monday, addressing questions from reporters about how the deal came about.
“It’s very good to be able to say that our fellow citizens are free,” he said, adding that the U.S. was engaging in further efforts to punish and deter countries who unlawfully imprison U.S. citizens.
Blinken added that the prisoner swap was negotiated separately from talks around the Iran nuclear deal. He stressed that the deal should not be taken as an indication of progress on the latter front.
Biden’s administration has emphasized that Qatar will maintain control of the $6 billion it is unfreezing and disburse it to Iran only for humanitarian efforts. Iran watchdogs have argued, however, that is only a half measure.
“As if disconnected from reality, the administration continues to press the point about controls on the accounts as if money is not fungible and as if Iran didn’t use illicit financial practices in the past to abuse humanitarian exemptions in older sanctions laws,” said Benham Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
“The Islamic Republic must be beaming now. Despite rhetoric from Washington about supporting the Iranian people, in practice with the waiver and random payment the Biden administration is now effectively helping Tehran signal that no matter what the regime does, it will not be met with meaningful pressure,” he added.
At Monday’s news conference, Blinken was asked what “mechanism” the U.S. has to ensure Iran does not use the money for terror. At first, Blinken gave the impression that none had been finalized, stating that “when we met with our GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) colleagues, our fellow Americans had not yet arrived in Doha. So we didn’t want to get ahead of that process.”
Despite that, after an explanation of the nature of the funds — being proceeds from legal oil sales that were frozen until now — Blinken said that the money “will be used exclusively for humanitarian purposes. And we have the means and mechanisms to make sure that that happens.”