image credit (Jonathon Ernst/AP)
Five Americans imprisoned in Iran gained freedom Monday after the United States and Iran struck a deal to release the prisoners in exchange for $6 billion in frozen assets.
The Americans flew to Qatar, where Iranian officials released them to the Qataris. They then flew home to Washington, D.C., where they could walk free and reunite with family members.
"Thank you for being my voice when I could not speak for myself and for making sure I was heard when I mustered the strength to scream from behind the impenetrable walls of Evin Prison." freed prisoner Siamak Namazi said upon arriving in Doha, Qatar.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote lawmakers a letter describing the release process, including the “transfer of approximately $6 billion in Iranian funds held in restricted accounts in the ROK (Republic of Korea) to restricted accounts in Qatar, where the funds will be available only for humanitarian trade."
This deal, where President Biden released nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets, was politically risky and has led to harsh backlash from critics.
"Today, five innocent Americans who were imprisoned in Iran are finally coming home," Biden said in a statement on Monday.
Defenders of Biden's position believe there are enough guardrails in place to ensure the funds are only used for humanitarian aid. CNN contributor Peter Bergen described how criticism of the Biden administration ignores that the funds will not go directly to Iran.
“...for its overseas oil sales, and the funds that are being unfrozen will not go to Iran but to Qatar,” Bergen wrote, “where the Qatari government will administer them to be used for only humanitarian purposes, according to Biden administration officials."
"Money will be used exclusively for humanitarian purposes,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted, “And we have means and mechanisms to make sure that that happens."
Those who support Biden's decision also point to the harsh conditions in the Evin Prison, where the Americans were held. According to Amnesty International, Evin is known for its poor reputation regarding sanitation, overcrowding, and mistreatment of inmates. According to his defenders, the President's most significant responsibility is to protect American citizens– giving the thumbs up to Biden's decision.
A senior State Department official said, "The Iranians that are being released as part of this are small potatoes. There are some big fish that the Iranians want out of our judicial system that they've asked for for some time. We've been engaged in difficult and principled negotiations for a long time and out of that process, they're not getting anybody they really care about."
Many Republicans strongly believe the decision was "irresponsible" because the assurances about how Iran will spend the money are inconsequential.
The Wall Street Journal states, "Critics in Washington and elsewhere say the U.S. is rewarding Iran for taking U.S. citizens hostage and for a minor pause in its nuclear work while Tehran ramps up regional threats and supplies military assistance to Russia for its war against Ukraine."
Richard Goldberg, who oversaw Iran policy under the Trump administration, said giving Iran more money would allow them to divert domestic funds for nefarious purposes.
Benham Talebu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, added, "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 financial practices in the past to abuse humanitarian exemptions in older sanction laws."
According to the Associated Press, these two nations have a history of prison swaps dating back to the 1979 US Embassy takeover and hostage crisis after the Iranian revolution. The most recent exchange before Monday’s was in 2016.
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