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5 Americans freed from prison in Iran land on U.S. soil

Family members embrace freed Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi, as well as two returnees whose names have not been released by the U.S. government, who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, as they arrive at Davison Army Airfield on Tuesday at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Jonathan Ernst
Family members embrace freed Americans Siamak Namazi, Morad Tahbaz and Emad Shargi, as well as two returnees whose names have not been released by the U.S. government, who were released in a prisoner swap deal between U.S and Iran, as they arrive at Davison Army Airfield on Tuesday at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Updated September 19, 2023 at 10:24 AM ET

Five Americans who were freed as part of a $6 billion exchange with Iran on Monday have landed on U.S. soil, arriving at Fort Belvoir, Va., early Tuesday morning.

The former prisoners were tearfully reunited with family and friends at the airport, hugging and crying after years of enforced separation. They reached the U.S. after being flown out of Tehran and to Doha, Qatar, on Monday.

The group includes:

  • Siamak Namazi, a businessman who was held in Iran since 2015;
  • Morad Tahbaz, an environmental activist detained in 2018;
  • Emad Shargi, who was arrested while visiting Iran in 2018;
  • Two other people who reportedly did not want to be named publicly.

To secure their freedom, the Biden administration agreed to give Tehran access to $6 billion in frozen oil revenues, as well as freeing five people who were being held in U.S. custody.

Former prisoners pose for a group photo

After landing, the released prisoners and their loved ones stood together for a photo, yelling "Freedom!" according to The Associated Press. The group also included two female relatives of the prisoners, who had previously been forbidden from traveling.

Namazi said on Monday that "what should have been the best days of my life were stolen" from him by Iran because of his detention.

"What I want more than anything is assurance that no one else will know the interminable anguish that my family and I experienced," he said. "But sadly, many are suffering those miseries right now."

Iran, Namazi said, "has mastered the nasty game of caging innocent Americans and other foreign nationals, and commercializing their freedom."

Critics say the deal brings Iran a large reward

The exchange of money and prisoners has been criticized, especially by President Biden's political opponents who say he is rewarding Iran's provocative detentions of U.S. citizens.

But the White House notes that the money did belong to Iran in the first place, and the Treasury Department says it will closely monitor how Iran spends the funds.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi seems to have other ideas. He recently told NBC News that Iran can use it however it wants.

"This money belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. "And naturally, we will decide, the Islamic Republic of Iran will decide, to spend it wherever we need it."

Prominent Republicans disagree with the deal — including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul of Texas, who said it "creates a direct incentive for America's adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking."

Who are the Iranian prisoners freed by the U.S.?

The group freed by the U.S. includes Iranian nationals or dual citizens who were living in the U.S. legally when they were arrested; most of their cases centered on the illegal export of sensitive technology or information to Iran.

They are:

Mehrdad Moein Ansari, a resident of the United Arab Emirates and Germany who was sentenced in 2021 to 63 months in prison for his part in a plan to obtain equipment that could be used in a variety of sensitive applications, from nuclear weapons and missile guidance to secure communications and electronic warfare.

Kambiz Attar Kashani, a dual U.S.-Iran citizen who was sentenced in February to 30 months in prison for "conspiring to illegally export U.S. goods and technology to end users in Iran, including the Central Bank of Iran," according to the Justice Department. Prosecutors say he used front companies in the UAE to buy "sophisticated, top-tier U.S. electronic equipment and software," which then helped the Iranian banking system become more effective and secure.

Reza Kafrani, a Canadian national charged in 2021 with buying three mass spectrometers and other lab equipment that are under sanctions and nuclear nonproliferation controls. The Justice Department says he arranged for the gear to be shipped to Canada, then to the UAE, and on to Iran.

Amin Hasanzadeh, a hardware and software engineer. The Iranian national was living in Michigan when he was indicted in 2019on charges that he emailed a trove of sensitive technical data from his U.S. employer to his brother. Both of the brothers had worked at an Iranian company linked to the military's efforts to develop cruise missiles, and Hasanzadeh had concealed his service in Iran's military, according to a criminal complaint.

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a political scientist and author who was charged in 2021 with working in the U.S. as an unregistered agent for Iran. To lawmakers and journalists, Afrasiabi purported to be a neutral expert on Iran — but he was on the payroll of Iran's mission to the U.N., the Justice Department said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a writer, reporter and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.